Overcoming Political Dysfunction in Japan


Japanese politics has fallen into a dysfunctional state. The nation’s politicians are unable to come up with responses to crucial political issues—or if they do come up with a response, it is always too late. What accounts for this sorry state of affairs? Is the problem specific to this country, or is it something that is common to all the advanced democracies? Maybe people in Japan are too harsh on themselves, and determined to see domestic politics in the worst possible light?

There is certainly no shortage of dysfunctional governments in other countries. Belgium, for example, went a year and a half without any official government in place at all—and finally managed to form a six-party coalition government (centered on the Socialist Party) only last December. This is beyond the imagination of most people in Japan. With its background in the long history of tensions and antagonism between the Dutch- and French-speaking populations in Belgium, the crisis naturally had the effect of paralyzing the nation’s politics completely.

Political Impasse Has a Systematic Cause

Japan’s general election three years ago brought the Democratic Party of Japan to power, ending decades of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. But the DPJ government has proved incapable of fulfilling the campaign promises laid out in its election manifesto. On top of this, the government’s response to last year’s earthquake and tsunami, and to the ongoing nuclear crisis, has been lumbering and ham-fisted.

There are many reasons for the woes of the DPJ government, but one of the most important factors is systematic. This is the “twisted Diet” phenomenon, as it is known in Japanese. The situation arises when different political parties (or coalitions) hold majorities in the lower house (House of Representatives) and upper house (House of Councillors) of the National Diet. The Japanese Constitution lays down a bicameral parliamentary system of cabinet government for the country. Members of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors have different terms, with the result that elections in the two houses often fall at different times. Shifts in public opinion can therefore easily bring about a divided Diet, in which no single party or coalition can control a majority in both houses at the same time.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the lower house takes priority over the upper house only in a limited set of circumstances: in budget matters, choosing the prime minister, and ratifying treaties. Otherwise, the two houses have the same degree of power. Consequently, a budget approved by a majority in the lower house can fail to pass if the upper house opposes budget-related legislation. In the case of a tax revenue shortfall, the government has no choice but to issue bonds. But this year again, the necessary legislation to allow the government to issue deficit-financing bonds has still not been approved, even though it was passed by a majority in the lower house, which is supposed to take precedence. The same problem arose with last year’s budget.

The Constitution allows the government to break through this sort of legislative impasse by securing a two-thirds majority at a second vote in the lower house. If this happens, the legislation will pass despite opposition in the upper house. This was possible when I served as a cabinet minister under prime ministers Abe Shinzō, Fukuda Yasuo, and Asō Tarō, since the LDP–New Kōmeitō coalition governments at that time held a two-thirds majority in the lower house. But that is not the case for the current DPJ government. The lack of a two-thirds majority allows the upper house to block legislation already passed by the lower house, forcing the government to make repeated compromises. This is the systematic factor that is preventing the DPJ from enacting the legislation it set out in its election manifesto.

 “Divided Diet” Dilemma Must Be Resolved

One way to overcome the divided Diet problem would be to merge the two houses into a single legislative body. Another option would be to shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Both solutions, however, would require substantial changes to the Constitution, which is no easy matter. How can the situation be improved without the need for a constitutional amendment? A start would be to create a joint committee formed of members from both houses to deliberate on how to give the lower house a greater degree of power. This would make it possible to break out of the current situation, in which both houses are essentially equal. But it will not be easy to convince the upper house to vote for a reform that would effectively give the lower house legislative predominance. One proposal that is often been put forward is to get around this problem by moving to a system in which the prime minister is chosen by a direct public election. Considering the populism now rampant in Japan, however, some people worry that a reform like this could open the way to more authoritarian rule.

Japan is not the only country that faces this kind of problem. In France, the prime minister and president sometimes come from opposing political parties. In France (where this situation is referred to as “cohabitation”), however, this has not led to political paralysis, because the division of responsibility between the two roles has been carefully thought out. Japan needs to do the same. We urgently need to find a way to untangle the “twisted Diet” phenomenon that has brought our politics to a standstill.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 15, 2012.)

politics Diet Lower House New Renaissance Party constitution divided Diet parliamentary system twisted Diet House of Representatives House of Councillors upper house joint house committee Masuzoe Yōichi upper house member political scientist