Why Japanese Politics Is at a Standstill

Takenaka Harukata [Profile]

[2012.07.20] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS |

In recent years, the problem of a “divided government,” in which the ruling party or coalition lacks a sufficient majority in either chamber of the Diet to get laws passed, has brought antagonism between the main parties to boiling point and paralyzed the political process. One of the main reasons for this sorry state of affairs is the role played in the Japanese political system by the House of Councillors. Professor Takenaka Harutaka provides the background.

Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko must be relieved that it is now much likelier that the Diet will pass legislation to raise the consumption tax. This is the agenda to which Noda has attached the utmost importance since he became prime minister. Draft bills were agreed at a cabinet meeting on March 30, and debate on the relevant legislation got underway in the Diet on May 8. The prime minister then succeeded in securing the support of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Kōmeitō for the bills. In return, Noda had to make major concessions to the two parties on amendments to the bills. A number of disaffected DPJ members led by Ozawa Ichirō, former president of the party, have left the party in protest. Even so, with the support of the LDP and the New Kōmeitō, Noda can be fairly confident that the legislation will pass.

This attempt to pass legislation to raise the consumption tax may indicate that Japan’s politicians have finally set about finding a cure for the political paralysis that has dogged Japan in recent years. Hatoyama Yukio, the first DPJ prime minister, was unable to implement reforms of several administrative institutions that support the prime minister during his time in office from September 2009 to June 2010. His successor, Kan Naoto, likewise failed to get his child allowance legislation through the Diet. Noda himself has devoted huge amounts of time to negotiating with the LDP and the New Kōmeitō on support for legislation to change the way that nuclear power is supervised in Japan. And now Noda faces a further challenge. He still needs to secure support for his proposal to issue special budget-financing bonds.

These are all examples of cases in which the policymaking process has been stagnating in recent years in Japan. Previous articles on Nippon.com by Machidori Satoshi and Hosoya Yuichi have already suggested the reasons for this stagnation. In this article, I would like to provide some further analysis of these reasons. The first factor I want to look at is the role played by the House of Councillors in the Japanese political system. I will begin by looking at the influence of the upper house on the political process in Japan, and then discuss why it has become one of the causes of paralysis in the political process.

The Unusual Position of Japan’s Upper House

One of the main reasons for the current political impasse is the rather strange position occupied by the House of Councillors in the Japanese system.

Japan’s system of government is generally thought of as a parliamentary democracy. One of the characteristics of a parliamentary system of this type is that the executive branch depends on the confidence of the legislative branch in order to function. In other words, the cabinet needs to maintain the support of a majority of the members of parliament if it is to function. By contrast, by passing a vote of no-confidence, the legislative branch can force the cabinet to resign or dissolve parliament and face the voters at a general election.

Another characteristic of the parliamentary system is that it is equipped with a framework for resolving gridlock in the case of differences of opinion between the executive and the legislature, thus avoiding paralysis of the national political process.

In Japan’s case, this consists of the relationship between the cabinet and the House of Representatives. The prime minister is chosen by an election in the lower house, and then puts together a cabinet. If the House of Representatives passes a motion of no confidence, the cabinet either has to dissolve parliament or resign. The lower house can also be dissolved without a vote of no confidence.

But no such relationship exists between the cabinet and the House of Councillors. The upper house does take part in the vote to choose the prime minister, but the results of the lower house vote take priority. The House of Councillors cannot pass a vote of no confidence in the cabinet. Conversely, the upper house cannot be dissolved, and members are guaranteed a six-year term.

So what happens in the event of a disagreement of opinion between the cabinet and the House of Councillors? Officially, the Japanese constitution attempts to avoid gridlock by giving the House of Representatives precedence over the House of Councillors.

Precedence for the Lower House: Theory and Practice

But in reality, this is difficult to achieve. In the case of budget proposals or treaties, the decision of the lower house takes priority. But problems remain in the case of regular legislation. Under the Japanese constitution, if the House of Councillors votes against or makes amendments to a bill that has already been passed by the House of Representatives, the bill will pass as originally drafted if the bill is resubmitted to the House of Representatives and approved with at least a two-thirds majority. But it is not easy for ruling parties to obtain a two-thirds majority. Since the House of Councillors was founded in May 1947, a ruling party or coalition has been able to command a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives on only two occasions: from November 1999 to June 2000 and from September 2005 to May 2010.

Despite the theory, in practice the two chambers of the Diet are in an equal position when it comes to enacting laws. The constitution provides for bicameral joint committees to resolve disagreements between the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. But the reality is that achieving a mutually satisfactory compromise through these joint committees is extremely difficult.

For this reason, in the case of a “divided government,” where the governing party lacks a majority in the upper house, the cabinet will struggle to get legislation through the Diet.

In recent years, both LDP-led and DPJ-led governments have struggled as a result of the divided government phenomenon. The LDP was routed in the upper house elections in July 2007, as a result of which it could no longer obtain a majority in the House of Councillors, even counting the seats of its coalition partner, the New Kōmeitō Party. The cabinets of Fukuda Yasuo (formed in September 2007) and Asō Tarō (formed in September 2008) both faced “divided governments” and struggled to get important legislation through the Diet, including tax system reform bills and legislation concerning Japan’s response to piracy.

The divided government problem was temporarily resolved with the changeover of power when the DPJ came to office in September 2009. But when the DPJ was defeated in the upper house elections in July 2010, the Diet entered a state of gridlock again. As a result, Kan Naoto was unable to get his child allowance legislation through, and was forced to make major compromises on basic party policies. He succeeded in forcing his bill on special government bonds through the Diet only by offering his resignation in exchange. Divided government is also one of the main reasons why the Noda cabinet had to make a series of concessions to the LDP and the New Kōmeitō on consumption tax in the hope of getting it enacted.

The divided government problem is not a new one. But in recent years the disagreements between the ruling and opposition parties have become much more pronounced, and this is paralyzing the political process. One of the reasons for this state of gridlock is the development since 2000 of a political system in both houses dominated by two major parties.

This development of a two-party system has meant that the two main parties now compete against one another directly in both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. This makes it likely that the leading opposition party will take advantage of a divided government to obstruct the ruling party’s legislation, hoping to turn the situation to its own advantage and force the next general election.

Hashimoto’s Plans for Reform

The LDP took advantage of the divided government situation to prevent the DPJ from passing it child allowance legislation, one of its flagship policies. Similarly, on the subject of the government bond bill, the LDP is attempting to use the issue to gain leverage over the DPJ with an eye to the next general election. The LDP is fully aware that, given the current fiscal situation in Japan (for which the LDP itself is largely responsible), issuing government bonds is unavoidable in order to finance the budget. The reason it is playing hard to get is that a number of LDP members firmly believe that the bill should be used to force the government to dissolve the lower house and call a general election.

The Osaka Restoration Association led by Hashimoto Tōru has won widespread attention by proposing a shift to a unicameral system. In reality, this would mean abolishing the upper house. That the case made by the Osaka Restoration Association has proved so popular shows the extent of the public animus against the House of Councillors. There is a growing feeling that the recalcitrance of the upper house is crippling politics.

Certainly there is no doubt that divided government has brought the political process to a standstill. But it is important to remember what lies in the background to this: the increasing dominance of a two-party system in recent years. On another occasion I will discuss how we might improve the present situation in light of this understanding.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 11, 2012; English version revised on July 19, 2012. Title background photo by Kuyama Shiromasa.)

  • [2012.07.20]

Professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Graduated from the University of Tokyo, where he majored in law. Joined the Ministry of Finance. Subsequently received his PhD in political science from Stanford University. Author of Sangiin to wa nani ka (What Is the House of Councillors?) and other works. Member of the Nippon.com editorial committee.

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