Is Japan really a democratic country? The answer is that "yes, it is formally."
We have a democratic constitution, and the Constitution of Japan stipulates that Japanese people elect the House of Representatives and they elect the prime minster. He appoints ministers, and they control their ministries. The will of Japanese people "should" be reflected in the government and its policies through election of the House of Representatives logically.
But in fact public opinion isn't always reflected in the government and its policies. Now Japanese people are seriously criticizing the nuclear policy of the Japanese government, because of the accident of the Fukushima nuclear power plants. But the nuclear policy hasn't been under civilian control, and I'm not sure that Japanese people will be able to control it.
The sub-government, which consists of some politicians, bureaucrats, electrical power companies, nuclear industries and specialists in nuclear power, has been controlling the nuclear policy in Japan, and Japanese people have almost no influence over it. A "Sub-government" is a group, usually consisting of politicians, bureaucrats and special interests, which controls public policy in a particular area in order to pursue their own interests. The "Military-industry complex" in the USA is a typical sub-government. The sub-government of the nuclear industry in Japan is called "the nuclear village".
In Japan there are not only "the nuclear village" but also many sub-governments controlling the policies in their areas, such as the agriculture sector, the construction industry, the postal service and the financial industry. These sub-governments came into being before and during World War II.
In Japan even the prime minister can't completely control these sub-governments, and of course Japanese people can't control them, either. When a sub-government is formed, its goals and policies are usually rational. But once it exsits, it begins to pursue its own special interests and maintaining itself becomes its primary goal. And then it can go against the public interests of the entire nation.
Before and during World War II Japan was a fascist country like German and Italy, but the system of Japanese fascism was quite different from German and Italy. The dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, were ruling their countries and they embodied the national wills. In German and Italy the dictators went entirely wrong way, so the countries went to ruin. On the other hand there was no dictator in Japan and no one unified the national will. The problem was that many sub-governments made chaotic actions by themselves.
The Meiji Constitution of Japan, which was reformed after World War II, stipulates that the Emperor represented the national will formally, but in fact he didn't have any real power. The Prime Minister didn't control the Japanese army, either. At that time, politicians, bureaucrats, Zaibatsu (which was conglomerates in Japanese) and the Japanese army made up many sub-governments and they each went their own way by themselves. Japanese army was independent in the Japanese government, and Japanese army itself was divided into many sects and they were almost chaos.
Germany started invading countries around itself by the will of Hitler, but Japan started invading China on the decision of the unit of the Japanese army stationed in China. The Japanese government tried to stop fighting against China, but they couldn't control the Japanese army and finally got drawn into a protracted war against China.
The war with China completely disrupted the relationship with the US. No Japanese people thought that Japan could win against America while fighting China at the same time, but Japan couldn't unify the will of Japanese nation and they made the Pearl Harbor attack without any expectation of winning the war. In the end US army bombed most Japanese large cities and two nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then Japan surrendered United Nations.
After World War II, the US occupation forces dismantled the Japanese army and Zaibatsu and made up more democratic Constitution of Japan. Sub-governments, which had been based on Japanese army, broke up, but the ones, which had been made up by Japanese bureaucrats during World War II, have continued to exist.
And then Japan's economy recovered rapidly. The sub-governments brought special interests to particular industries and companies, but Japanese economy as a whole had been growing, so there were few people, who were frustrated with the injustice of distribution of wealth, because every Japanese people had been getting wealthier more or less.
Since Japanese army was deconstructed, Japan have depended its security completely on US army. Japanese people and government have never taken a decision about their security policy by themselves. During the Cold War, the common enemy of US and Japan was Soviet Union, and it was obvious that our goal was to counter the threat from Soviet Union.
From 1955 to 2000s Liberal Democratic Party had keep their power. LDP don't have their own ideology and goal, but it is an aggregation of representatives of sub-governments and coordinated their interests. There was no opposition party, which could take over from LDP, so we had no alternative to LDP. In fact Japanese people had no chance to control the government and policies through election of the House of Representatives logically.
In 1960s the anti-America student movement got higher, but they couldn't get a wide support from Japanese people. Finally they were beaten by the sub-governments, which wanted to keep their interests.
But in 1990s the bubble economy and Berlin wall was broken down and the period of economic growth and the Cold War ended. The harmful effects of the sub-governments have been getting clear for Japanese people. The sub-government has been criticized seriously, but they have been quite firm and haven't been broken up.
Especially bureaucrats were criticized, because they controlled the sub-government. Some politicians, including the members of LDP, insisted that they should get power from bureaucrats and control the government by themselves (in fact these politicians consisted the part of the sub-government and got interests from them). These politicians tried to make a new political party, which could manage the government and provided an alternative to Japanese people. This is the Democratic Party.
In 2009 the Democratic Party got the power from LDP. They promised major policy change, but they haven't been able to reform the government because of the obstruction of the sub-governments and the internal conflict of the Democratic Party.
Before World War II a two-party system had been formed, but Japanese people lost their trust of these parties, because of the corruption and dispute of them. Finally the two-party system collapsed. This regime change from LDP to the Democratic Party isn't successful now, but I hope that a two-party system will be established in the future.
Now the nuclear policy is criticized seriously, but the Democratic Party doesn't seem to try to deconstruct "the nuclear village". Prime minister Naoto Kan will change the nuclear policy, but Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda is resisting changing it. Naoto Kan is isolated in the Democratic Party, so I'm not sure that he can deconstruct "the nuclear village".
How about Japanese people? Most Japanese people are against nuclear power, but anti-nuclear movement isn't active now. Why don't they and I fight against "the nuclear village"? In Japan only Okinawa people are seriously fighting against the Japanese government and US army. What are the other Japanese people doing?
If Japan is a democratic country, we should fight them in order to realize our own will. We, Japanese people, don't believe in the ideal of democracy, do we? I'm now deeply skeptical.