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Dissolving the House of Representatives: A Powerful Political Tool
[2017.10.11] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

The Japanese constitution gives the prime minister the authority to dissolve the House of Representatives, the more powerful of Japan’s two Diet chambers. It is among the premier’s greatest political powers, seen as a means of bringing pivotal agenda issues to a public vote.

On September 28, 2017, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō dissolved the lower house of the Diet and called a snap election slated for October 22. Below we look at the legal and historical background of the dissolution, a powerful political instrument that can reset the course of Japan’s most influential legislative body.

A Prime Ministerial Power

The Japanese National Diet is a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, the lower and upper house, respectively. Members of the lower chamber of the Diet, the more influential of the two, serve four-year terms while their colleagues in the upper chamber have six-year terms.

The prime minister has the authority to dissolve the lower house at any time and call for a general election. This is one of the premier’s greatest political powers, and one that Japan’s leaders have historically used to their advantage, typically to put pivotal issues from their agenda to a vote or to bolster their party’s control of the legislative body.

Two Routes to Dissolution

The Japanese Constitution provides two ways for dissolving the lower house. The most commonly applied method is set out in Article 7. The passage gives the emperor, “with the advice and approval of the cabinet,” the authority to perform various matters of state, including disbanding the House of Representatives. The involvement of the emperor is only a formal device, though, and the decision to dissolve the legislative chamber rests firmly with the prime minister.

The second method is through Article 69. This calls for the House of Representatives to dissolve within 10 days of passing a no-confidence vote or rejecting a confidence measure against the cabinet. To date, this type of dissolution has only occurred four times in the postwar period. As with Article 7, dissolution under Article 69 is formally carried out by the emperor.

Following the disbandment of the lower chamber of the Diet, as per Article 54 of the Constitution, a general election must be held within 40 days.

Ending Early the Norm

Since the postwar Constitution came into force it has been standard practice for prime ministers to dissolve the House of Representatives. Over more than seven decades, the lower house has run its entire four-year term just one time.

A premier’s decision to dissolve the lower house generally hinges on a prominent political issue. It must take into consideration the political landscape and be carefully timed. In the case of Abe’s recent move to call a snap election, he is generally viewed as capitalizing on his improved approval ratings amid rising North Korean tensions and a disheveled opposition in order to advance core areas of his agenda. These include a hike of the consumption tax hike to 10% in October 2019 and proposed revisions to the Constitution.

Dissolving the lower house comes with risks, however. In November 2012, Noda Yoshihiko disbanded the lower house after bartering with the opposition to pass a social security and tax reform bill. However, he was forced to do so while popular support for his Democratic Party of Japan languished, leading to a major defeat for his party in the subsequent election and an end to his administration.

Political Nicknaming

There is no official protocol for naming dissolutions, but usually at least one de facto title emerges from the press or from politicians themselves to serve as a shorthand description for the broader political setting. Examples include the “consumption tax” dissolution in January 1990, named for Kaifu Toshiki’s plan to introduce a 3% sales tax, and the August 2005 “postal dissolution,” so called for Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s proposed privatization of the nation’s postal services.

In most cases, though, labels are not cut and dried. For example, in January 1955 Hatoyama Ichirō unexpectedly dissolved the House of Representatives during a questions session in the Diet in what became known as the “voice of heaven” dissolution. More recently, in 2009 Asō Tarō called the “on-the-brink” dissolution in July 2009 as public sentiment of his Liberal Democratic Party languished, leading to their drubbing in the ensuing election. One infamous case is the March 1953 “you idiot” dissolution that Yoshida Shigeru called following a bout of name calling by the prime minister during a budget committee session.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 18, 2014. Content edited and added by the Nippon.com English editorial team. Banner photo: The main chamber of the House of Representatives. © Jiji.)

Postwar Dissolutions of the House of Representatives

Date of dissolution Prime minister Popular name
1 December 18, 1945 Shidehara Kijūrō GHQ dissolution
2 March 31, 1947 Yoshida Shigeru New Constitution dissolution; Second GHQ dissolution
3 December 23, 1948 Yoshida Collusion dissolution
4 August 28, 1952 Yoshida “Out of the blue” dissolution
5 March 14, 1953 Yoshida “You idiot” dissolution
6 January 24, 1955 Hatoyama Ichirō “Voice of heaven” dissolution
7 April 25, 1958 Kishi Nobusuke “Talk things out” dissolution
8 October 24, 1960 Ikeda Hayato Security Treaty dissolution
9 October 23, 1963 Ikeda Income-doubling dissolution
10 December 27, 1966 Satō Eisaku “Black mist” dissolution
11 December 2, 1969 Satō Okinawa dissolution
12 November 13, 1972 Tanaka Kakuei Sino-Japanese dissolution
13 December 9, 1976 (full term) Miki Takeo Lockheed incident dissolution
14 September 7, 1979 Ōhira Masayoshi General consumption tax election
15 May 19, 1980 Ōhira “Happening” dissolution
16 November 28, 1983 Nakasone Yasuhiro Lockheed trial dissolution
17 June 2, 1986 Nakasone Play-dead dissolution
18 January 24, 1990 Kaifu Toshiki Consumption tax dissolution
19 June 18, 1993 Miyazawa Kiichi Political reform dissolution
20 September 27, 1996 Hashimoto Ryūtarō New electoral system dissolution
21 June 2, 2000 Mori Yoshirō “Land of the gods” dissolution
22 October 10, 2003 Koizumi Jun’ichirō “Manifesto” dissolution; administrative reform dissolution
23 August 8, 2005 Koizumi Postal dissolution
24 July 21, 2009 Asō Tarō On-the-brink dissolution
25 November 16, 2012 Noda Yoshihiko “In the near future” dissolution
26 November 21, 2014 Abe Shinzō Abenomics dissolution
27 September 28, 2017 Abe Still to be decided

Current as of October 20, 2017.

  • [2017.10.11]
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