Justin Reeves is the 2015-2016 Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in Modern Japanese Politics at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He holds a B.A. in both Japanese and Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles and recently obtained his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego. His research interests include comparative governmental institutions, voting behavior, and Japanese politics.
Read below for a Q&A about Professor Reeves’s research and teaching interests:
Could you tell us, in brief, about some of the questions and issues regarding Japanese politics that your research has explored?
My research has mostly focused on general comparative questions about voting behavior and the effect of different institutions in the context of elections. Owing to its particular institutional arrangements and reforms, Japan was an ideal case study for exploring these questions, but a deeper understanding of Japanese politics itself was never really the primary endgame. That said, there are several Japan-specific puzzles that the research helps to shed some light on. Probably the most conspicuous of these puzzles is why Japanese voters consistently support famous amateur candidates in actual electoral races in spite of their well-documented disapproval of “celebrity candidates” on national surveys.
Another question deals with how Japanese voters reconcile their desire to punish political corruption with the sometimes conflicting incentive to support incumbent political parties that serve their district and/or ideological needs.
Aside from questions of voter behavior, I have also looked at the performance of legislators in Japan. A common assumption in Japan, and elsewhere, is that the backgrounds of legislators (whether they have experience in office, what kind of job they held in the past, etc.) has some predictive value with respect to their quality as legislators. I test these assumptions by combing through decades of data on a variety of different legislative activities to see if any discernable patterns arise.
How did you become interested in specifically studying Japanese politics?
As an undergrad at UCLA I was double majoring in Japanese language and political science but for years there was little to no overlap between these two academic interests. When I was afforded the opportunity to take a Japanese politics course in my senior year with Mike Thies, the two finally came together. I realized then that many of the subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences that made me fascinated with Japan from a cultural standpoint also extended to the country’s politics.
Are there some distinctive aspects about Japanese politics that make it particularly fascinating to you?
Japan is a pretty interesting case whether you’re a comparative political scientist or someone who’s mostly just familiar with politics in the US. In most of the world’s advanced industrialized democracies you have broad divisions along issues of class, religion, and ethnicity that roughly define the political landscape, but which are comparatively much less salient in Japan. The long history of single party dominance under LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) rule and the impact of using a variety of voting rules in Japanese elections over the years has captured a lot of attention from scholars. For me the question of how voters come to identify themselves politically in Japan and the criteria they use to make ballot decisions becomes more interesting because of all these aforementioned conditions.
What is your spring 2016 class about?
It’s a seminar course on US-Japan relations that focuses on the postwar years. Thematically it’s organized around issues of trade and security that have defined the nature of the bilateral relationship from the Occupation years to present. Within these issues we look at points of overlap between the two countries’ goals as well as points of tension, with an eye towards the role that domestic interests, different institutions, and other international forces and actors play in these interactions.
What aspects of U.S.-Japan relations are particularly interesting to you?
In spite of the trade friction that evolved out of Japan’s miracle growth period the relationship itself has been remarkably stable over the years. But of course the international environment has not remained static. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China, nuclear threats from North Korea, and a perceived waning of US capabilities in the region have placed new pressures on Japan to reevaluate its role. Meanwhile the future role of the United States, while ostensibly in the midst of a “pivot to Asia” and the recent TPP success notwithstanding, is not totally clear – with wildly different foreign policy views being espoused by front-running candidates for the upcoming presidential elections.
What’s most interesting to me at the moment is how Japanese leaders are going to deal with this uncertainty, and whether domestic political conditions are going to allow for any substantial changes beyond the recent security legislation (for which Abe received a lot of push back). For now the LDP remains unrivaled and the party system is in disarray, but it can’t really boast a very strong mandate as fewer citizens seem to identify strongly with one party or the other. It faces some difficult challenges in managing issues such as its aging society and fiscal woes, and to some extent its ability to redefine the country’s security role in the region will also be tied to its success or failure in handling these other issues.