In-depth The Significance of the National Security Legislation Controversy
The Difficult Role of the Top Opposition Party

Machidori Satoshi [Profile]

[2015.12.18] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

The Democratic Party of Japan, which governed from 2009 to 2012, failed in its quixotic attempt to block the government’s national security legislation by joining forces with protesters outside the Diet. The DPJ must return to a textbook approach to its role as the top opposition party if it hopes to regain power.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which was in power for three years starting in 2009, took a posture of extreme resistance to the passage of the national security legislation that the National Diet enacted in September this year. Why did the DPJ, currently the biggest opposition party, choose a course that included physical resistance within the Diet and linkage with protestors outside the Diet, tactics like those used by the former Japan Socialist Party when it was the leading opposition force? In this article I will address this question as it relates to the basic political structure of Japan today.

Single-Party Versus Coalition Government Under a Parliamentary System

Looking around the world, we see considerable diversity in the operation of the parliamentary system of government, the system that Japan adopted after World War II. Particularly salient is the difference between parliamentary systems where the government led by a single party or a very small number of parties and those where government is by a coalition of multiple parties, often three or more.

In the case of single-party rule, the government (cabinet) and ruling party generally work out any internal differences and finalize the contents of proposed legislation before submitting it to the legislature. The consent of the ruling party is sufficient for enactment of the legislation, and there is virtually no revision of the content during the course of legislative deliberations, since the provisions have been worked out in advance. The policymaking process is generally led by the government. Britain is the prime example of this style of parliamentary government.

In the case of coalition rule, by contrast, the policymaking process is led mainly by the parties in the ruling coalition. The wishes of the cabinet (prime minister) are of course given priority, but inasmuch as no single party holds a majority of the seats in the legislature, policies cannot be adopted unless the coalition members reach agreement among themselves.

When the coalition members have not fully worked out their differences before submission of a bill to the legislature, they seek to enact it while accepting revisions in the course of legislative deliberations. In such cases it becomes feasible for opposition parties to get involved. This sort of legislative process is fairly common in continental European countries.

Japan’s Peculiar Form of Coalition Government

Here in Japan the basic pattern for the policymaking process has been that of single-party rule. Since 1993 the government has ordinarily been in the hands of a ruling coalition, but in almost every case the coalition has been dominated by one party, either the Liberal Democratic Party or the DPJ. The dominant party, while governing in coalition with a much smaller party or parties, has held over 80% of the coalition’s seats in the House of Representatives.

Though the main ruling party may take into account the wishes of its smaller coalition partners because it needs their votes in the upper house, for the most part the policy decisions on the content of proposed legislation are reached through consultations within the government and main party prior to submission of bills to the Diet. Except in periods when the opposition parties hold a majority in the upper house, it is unusual for the opposition to be involved in making revisions to a bill during legislative deliberations; in most cases the bill is enacted just as submitted by the government.

The Opposition in a Difficult Corner

What role do opposition parties play in a parliamentary system where policymaking follows the single-party pattern? The key feature shaping this situation is the fact that proposed legislation is generally not revised in the course of legislative deliberations.

In the case of Japan’s postwar parliamentary system, it has sometimes been possible for the opposition to win concessions from the ruling party by refusing to participate in legislative proceedings or using other delaying tactics. This approach takes advantage of the shortness of Diet sessions and the tendency of the media to criticize the ruling party if it railroads a bill through the legislature. In most cases, though, the concessions are within the scope of what the government expected when submitting the bill. It is highly unusual for a truly important piece of legislation to end up being scrapped.

Since it is so difficult to secure substantial revisions or to block passage of a key bill, the opposition finds itself in a difficult tactical corner. The textbook approach for opposition parties under a single-party policymaking pattern is to point out problems with the governments’ bills through debate in the Diet, get its position reported by the media, attract public support, and thereby win enough votes to take power after the next election. But in many cases the level of public interest in the Diet debate is low, and so this approach is of dubious effectiveness in terms of voter appeal.

  • [2015.12.18]

Professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Law. Earned his PhD in political science after doing graduate work at Kyoto University and taught at schools including Osaka University before arriving at his present post. Specializes in comparative political studies and American politics. His works include Seitō sisutemu to seitō soshiki (Party Systems and Party Organizations) and Daigisei minshushugi: “Min’i” to “seijika” o toinaosu (Representative Democracy: A Reconsideration of the Public Will and Politicians).

Related articles
Other articles in this report
  • The Polarization of the Japanese Media and the Need for Middle GroundJapanese newspapers are said to have become polarized in their coverage of controversial issues like the recent national security legislation. How does their current approach compare with their stance in 1960, when renewal of the Japan-US security treaty split the nation? And what is their role in the age of the Internet, where people are unlikely to seek content that conflicts with their own opinions?

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news