Social Organization. Japan is an extremely homogeneous society in which class differences were abolished at the end of the last century. An exception was the burakumin, an outcaste group, the majority of whom are descendants of ritually "unclean" people (leatherworkers, butchers, grave diggers). Although discrimination against burakumin was made illegal after the war, many continue to be severely stigmatized, and most of them live close to the poverty line.
Japan is widely recognized as a vertically structured, group-oriented society in which the rights of individuals take second place to harmonious group functioning. Traditionally, Confucian ethics encouraged a respect for authority, whether that of the state, the employer, or the family. Age and gender differences also were marked through both language and behavioral patterns. Women traditionally were expected to pay respect first to their fathers, then to their husbands, and finally, in later life, to their sons. Although this hierarchy is no longer rigidly enforced, it is still very evident in both language and interpersonal behavior.
Social groups of all kinds in Japan frequently are described as "familylike"; a strong sense of group solidarity is fostered consciously at school and work, leading to a highly developed awareness of insiders and outsiders. Competition between groups is keen, but the vertical structuring of loyalty, which overarches and encompasses the competing entities, usually ensures that consensus can be obtained at the level of whole organizations and institutions. The finely tuned ranking order that pervades Japanese organizations today is modeled on fictive kinship relationships characteristic of superiors and their subordinates in the traditional workplace. These relationships are often likened to bonding between parents and children and are present not only in the labor force but also in the worlds of the arts and entertainment, in gangster organizations, and so on. Despite the pervasiveness of hierarchy, institutional affiliation is recognized as more important than social background in contemporary Japan. This preference combined with the existence of a highly uniform educational system leads, paradoxically, to a reasonably egalitarian social system.
Political Organization. The 1947 postwar constitution proclaimed the Diet as the highest organ of state power and the sole law-making authority of the state. The Diet is divided into two elected chambers: the lower chamber, or the House of Representatives, where a term of office lasts for four years; and the upper chamber, or the House of Councillors, whose members serve a six-year term. Of the two, the House of Representatives holds more power. Much of the business of each house is conducted in standing committees to which special committees may be added as the need arises. Executive power resides in the cabinet, at whose head is the prime minister. The cabinet is directly responsible to the Diet. The House of Representatives chooses the prime minister, who then selects the cabinet. The power of the prime minister is curbed severely by rival intraparty factions, and cabinet posts are reshuffled frequently, both of which processes influence decision making. The judiciary is, in theory, independent of the government, and the supreme court has the power to determine the constitutionality of any law, regulation, or official act. However, supreme court judges are appointed by the cabinet and in turn influence the appointment of other judges.
Throughout the postwar years the authority of the central government has been consolidated. The relatively conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been repeatedly reelected to power ever since its formation in 1955, a situation brought about in part by its close connection with wealthy interest groups, a highly effective and far-flung bureaucracy, and an electoral system imbalanced in favor of votes from rural areas. Since the 1960s a series of active citizens' movements interested in consumer and environmental issues has repeatedly challenged the ruling party, resulting in some policy changes. Japan is frequently described as a society where a preponderance of political power that takes precedence over all other social activities exists at every level of society. Furthermore, the implementation of power is designed above all to carry forward group objectives rather than individual rights or interests.
The emperor presently is described in the constitution as the "symbol of the people and the unity of the nation" but holds no formal political power. On New Year's day 1946 the then Emperor Hirohito formally announced that he was an ordinary human being, thus breaking the tradition, which had existed since prehistory, of attributing semidivine status to Japanese emperors. Nevertheless, at the enthronement of Hirohito's son in 1991, Shintō ceremonies were performed, including rituals involving divinities. The lives of the imperial family remain very secluded and carefully controlled by the Imperial Household Agency; their existence provides, among other things, a focus for nationalistic sentiment, which at times is strongly expressed.
Social Control. Law enforcement is carried out by a police system organized into prefectural forces and coordinated by a National Police Agency. Public safety commissions supervise police activities at both the national and prefectural levels. Particularly at the local level, the police force enjoys wide public support and respect, although this is tinged with a certain ambivalence because the police remain strongly associated with prewar authoritarianism. Local police are required to visit every home in their jurisdiction twice a year to gather information on residents; this activity is generally regarded positively by citizens. Police are also required to participate actively in community organizations and activities, and they maintain close links with local governments. The crime rate in Japan is exceptionally low for an urban, densely populated society, in part because segments of each community cooperate actively with the police in crime-prevention activities.
Conflict. Serious conflict in Japan is dealt with under the rubric of the legal system, which is organized so that out-ofcourt resolutions are by far the most usual. Compromise and conciliation by third-party mediators are widely practiced. Japan has relatively few lawyers and judges, and cases that go to court take an exceptionally long time to reach settlement.