The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Breaking the Political Deadlock with Bold Reforms

January 19, 2012

The breakdown of Japan’s political system can no longer be ignored. The economy has been stagnating for more than two decades now. Our colossal national debt continues to swell. Japan’s power and influence continue to wane.

Two years after the Democratic Party of Japan toppled the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Japanese government and politics are more dysfunctional than ever. The ineptitude of the DPJ government has been mind-boggling; its handling of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis has in itself been disastrous.

Some critics of the current government are saying that the 2009 change in government was a mistake and that a two-party system is unlikely to take root in Japan. But the LDP is in shambles as well.

In the midst of this leadership vacuum, it has become common to hold up as a model the reformers and revolutionaries who toppled the Tokugawa shogunate and ushered in the age of modernization in Japan. But we live in a democracy today; a handful of powerful leaders can no longer singlehandedly chart our future.

It seems to me that one of the most important things we can do now is to analyze Japan’s two-party system in a historical context in an effort to identify the factors responsible for the current breakdown.

A Constitutional Oversight?

From an institutional standpoint, the biggest factor underlying to our recent legislative paralysis has been the ability of the House of Councillors to block legislation. Few if any other bicameral parliamentary democracies today have an upper house with such powers. Under the Constitution of Japan, any legislation passed by the House of Representatives—with the exception of the budget bill—can be blocked by the upper house, unless the House of Representatives passes the bill again by a two-thirds majority. (Another option is to convene the Conference Committee of Both Houses, which I discuss below.) This means that for a party to govern effectively, it must either control both chambers of the Diet or control a two-thirds majority in the lower house.

The process by which the current Constitution was drafted and adopted helps explain how this came about. The constitutional draft prepared by the Allied Occupation’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in February 1946 at the orders of General Douglas Macarthur had called for a unicameral legislature. GHQ’s argument was that the House of Peers (the upper chamber of the prewar Imperial Diet) was obsolete now that the peerage had been abolished. However, Joji Matsumoto, the minister of state in charge of revising the Constitution, was adamant that an upper house was needed to ensure mature and thoughtful legislative deliberation, and GHQ acquiesced.

Matsumoto prided himself on winning this concession, but in actuality the GHQ had called for a unicameral legislature in full knowledge that it would be opposed. For Macarthur, this was no more than a bargaining chip, to be sacrificed in exchange for concessions on the really important issues—namely, the status of the emperor and Article 9 (renunciation of war). In insisting on a bicameral legislature, Matsumoto simply played into GHQ’s hands.

A curious inconsistency in the text of the 1947 Constitution testifies to this process. Among the functions of the emperor listed in Article 7 is that of proclaiming a “general election of members of the Diet.” But given that the stipulated term for upper house members is six years, with elections for half of the members held every three years, a “general election” for all members of the Diet is out of the question. The drafters simply neglected to revise this section after hurriedly inserting a provision for the upper house elsewhere. Constitutions are, after all, the work of human beings, not divine scripture (as some Japanese are wont to believe), and sometimes they contain mistakes.

The basic problem is that the Constitution of Japan was the work of American experts familiar with the presidential system and Japanese experts familiar with the government established by the Meiji Constitution. It never underwent careful scrutiny by experts more broadly versed in parliamentary democracy. As a result, the bicameral system it established contained a fundamental flaw.

Evils of One-Party Rule

It was only in recent years that this weakness has become apparent, however. The reason is that prior to that, the Liberal Democratic Party held control of both houses.

With respect to the House of Representatives, the LDP secured a majority of seats in 1955, the year the party was formed, and maintained that majority for close to four decades. Throughout that time, its biggest rival, the Japan Socialist Party—now known as the Social Democratic Party—ran a distant second. Indeed, with the exception of one occasion (in 1958), the JSP never went into a general election with enough candidates to secure a lower house majority. It was not until 1996, when a group of opposition parties merged to form the New Frontier Party, that the LDP’s position as the nation’s top political party was seriously challenged.

Until then, however, the LDP remained securely at the helm, running the country in partnership with the powerful bureaucracy. Under the old system of multiseat electoral constituencies, the JSP generally managed to secure one seat out of three or more, and before long it had grown content with this slice of the pie and abandoned any idea of seizing the reins of government.

In the absence of any serious competition between opposing political parties, the media focused instead on the power struggles within the LDP among competing factions. Election coverage did not focus so much on whether the LDP gained or lost a majority but on changes in the strength of its majority; media reports painted any loss of seats as a “defeat” for which the cabinet was called upon to take responsibility by resigning en masse.

In fact, almost any negative development became an occasion for demanding the government’s resignation, from the results of prefectural and by-elections to a drop in the stock market—not to mention corruption scandals. From the standpoint of the rival LDP factions waiting in the wings for their chance to head the government, these periodic political crises were by no means unwelcome. Each time the LDP lost seats in a Diet election, the media and the opposition would clamor for the prime minister’s resignation and then cheer when a new LDP leader was chosen. But nothing fundamental ever changed. In this way, the media helped prolong the LDP’s rule by promoting cosmetic changes in leadership that satisfied the public without ever addressing the basic systemic issues.

The Road to a Two-Party System

The first serious challenge to the LDP’s monopoly on power came in June 1993, when LDP reformers Tsutomu Hata and Ichiro Ozawa bolted the ruling party and founded the Japan Renewal Party. By teaming up with other centrist and progressive opposition parties, including the Social Democratic Party (formerly the JSP) and Komeito, they were able to form an anti-LDP coalition government under Morihiro Hosokawa. Under the Hosokawa cabinet, the Diet passed major electoral reform legislation that replaced the old multiseat districts with a combination of single-seat constituencies and proportional-representation block districts. But the LDP worked hard to divide and discredit the new government, and in April 1994 Hosokawa resigned, and the SDP defected. The remaining coalition members formed a government with Hata as prime minister, but without a lower house majority, the cabinet was forced to resign the following June.

Next, to muster the numbers needed to regain control of the government, the LDP forged an unlikely coalition with the SDP, with Social Democratic leader Tomiichi Murayama as prime minister. On paper, LDP and SDP policies were poles apart, and the idea of a coalition between these longtime antagonists struck many observers as bizarre. But in fact the LDP and the SDP had maintained a strategic arrangement for decades, and on a pragmatic level, their policy aims were not as different as they appeared. As for the LDP, the most important consideration was returning to power. Under the coalition agreement, the SDP yielded on policy by formally endorsing the Japan-US Security Treaty, while the LDP yielded the position of prime minister to the SDP.

In the winter of 1994 the Japan Renewal Party joined with other opposition forces to form the New Frontier Party, which mounted a concerted challenge to the LDP-SDP coalition. The general election of 1996 was a milestone on the road to a two-party system in that it was fought by two large parties fielding roughly the same number of candidates. The NFP failed to garner a majority, though, and in the aftermath of the election became marked by internal strife, splintering into a number of smaller parties. The Democratic Party of Japan, then led by Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama, merged with some of the splinter groups to emerge, in April 1998, as the top opposition force.

After several years challenging the policies of the LDP–Komeito ruling coalition, the DPJ significantly boosted its strength in 2003 through a merger with Ichiro Ozawa’s Liberal Party. In the 2005 general election, the DPJ was dealt a bitter setback at the hands of Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, a popular LDP maverick, but recovered and emerged from the 2007 House of Councillors election as the top party in the upper house. Finally, in the general election of August 2009, it trounced the LDP and seized the reins of government.

Obstructionism Prevails

In 2007 the DPJ, under Ichiro Ozawa, gained control of the upper house and adopted a strategy of taking maximum advantage of that position to obstruct and undermine the government. This included using the veto power of the upper house to block nominations to critical posts, including governor of the Bank of Japan. Under Ozawa’s leadership, the upper house passed an unprecedented censure motion against Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in the upper house. (Such a motion had been filed against the director-general of the Defense Agency in 1998, but this was the first motion against a prime minister in the postwar era.)

The DPJ then boycotted deliberations on the grounds that a minister under censure could not be permitted to attend Diet committee meetings. Although the LDP resisted calls for the government’s resignation, determined to ignore such a nonbinding resolution, three months later Fukuda announced that he was resigning for different reasons.

The DPJ adopted the same strategy in July 2009 with a censure motion against Prime Minister Taro Aso. Aso refused to step down on that account, but in the general election held the following month, the dysfunctional LDP went down to defeat, and the Aso cabinet resigned en masse.

In the House of Councillors election of 2010, the now-ruling DPJ suffered a major electoral setback and lost control of the upper house. The LDP, this time, adopted the same obstructive tactics against the DPJ, using its upper house majority to undermine the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto. In November 2010, shortly before the Diet was to adjourn, the LDP pushed censure motions against Transport Minister Sumio Mabuchi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku through the upper house and announced its intention to boycott Diet deliberations unless those cabinet members resigned. As the nation waited to see how the government would respond when the next ordinary Diet session convened the following year, House of Councillors President Takeo Nishioka (a close Ozawa ally harshly critical of Kan) told the prime minister that he would not open the session unless Sengoku resigned. Kan was forced to reshuffle his cabinet, and the loss of Sengoku—his right-hand man—was a major blow to his government.

The passage of upper house censure motions to cripple the government is a grave abuse of the system, with potentially disastrous consequences. Similar partisan tactics helped propel Japan toward militarism in the years leading up to World War II. In 1930, after the Minseito (Constitutional Democratic Party) cabinet of Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi signed the London Naval Treaty without the full approval of the Naval General Staff, Hamaguchi came under fire for violating the independence of the supreme command. Athough Japan’s top naval commanders had actually resigned themselves to the treaty, the opposition Seiyukai (Friends of Constitutional Government) pounced on the issue to launch an all-out attack on the Hamaguchi cabinet and created an uproar.

Although the Meiji Constitution gave the emperor command over the army and navy, independent from civilian control, imperial authority had always been subject to tight constraints. To further its own political ambitions, the Seiyukai distorted that principle, opened the way for its abuse, and helped set Japan on the road to militarism.

Any political system can break down once time-honored customs and precedents are abandoned. If politicians push the rules past the limits of good sense, the system will cease to function as it was intended to. In this sense, it is no exaggeration to compare today’s hung Diet to the partisan battles of 1930.

Breaking the Impasse

Japan’s dysfunctional Diet has become a chronic disease. The nation faces monumental problems that do not lend themselves to quick fixes. As a result, any administration—however strong its support at the beginning—quickly runs into difficulties and loses people’s confidence. The public expresses its frustration by voting for the opposition, but the next government faces the same problems. How can we break this vicious circle?

Over the long term, the answer is to amend the Constitution to strengthen Japan’s parliamentary system. There are a number of options, from abolishing the House of Councillors to reducing to a simple majority the votes needed in the lower house to overturn an upper house rejection of a bill. We also need to give serious thought to ways of reducing turnover in the top executive office and lending some stability to the nation’s leadership, such as by holding direct elections for prime minister or adopting a presidential system.

Short of amending the Constitution, however, we should consider measures to strengthen the Conference Committee of Both Houses. At present the committee members are divided equally between the lower and upper house, and each house selects its representatives from among those who voted with the majority. A committee composed of 10 lower house members in favor of a bill and 10 upper house members opposed to it is a surefire recipe for deadlock. One option might be to weight the composition of the committee in favor of the lower house, say, at a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. In addition, the makeup could be adjusted to reflect the percentage of each house that supported the conflicting decisions.

A time-honored way of overcoming legislative gridlock without altering the current system is to forge a coalition. A “grand coalition” between the DPJ and the LDP is one possibility, but as things stand now, even a smaller coalition between the DPJ and the Komeito would secure the necessary majority in both houses.

Some oppose the idea of a grand coalition on the grounds that it smacks of the prewar Imperial Rule Assistance Association (Taisei Yokusankai), which absorbed all the nation’s political parties into a single statist organization. But this objection is totally misguided. The prewar association was designed to create a single-party system, while a grand coalition presupposes two or more parties. Other opponents of a grand coalition argue that it would defeat the purpose of single-seat constituencies. But even in Britain, the home of the single-seat constituency, grand coalitions are considered a natural response to crisis situations. In the twentieth century Britain had three such coalition governments: during World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.

Optimists argue that even with a divided Diet, a legislature should be able to function by means of noncabinet alliances, or simply by approaching each piece of legislation on its own merits. Noncabinet alliances may or may not be effective, but in an emotionally charged realm like politics, it is all too common for the opposition to begin by pledging to address each piece of legislation on its own merits and end by opposing every bill the cabinet submits.

Japan’s Second Defeat?

But regardless of the framework, both sides must be willing to work to reach an agreement. The Imperial Diet under the Meiji Constitution was also a bicameral body, and the popularly elected House of Representatives was almost by nature at odds with the House of Peers, which represented hereditary privilege, wealth, and social position—often former senior government officials. Still, within a few years of the Diet’s establishment, the Meiji oligarchs and the party politicians had learned to work together and find a middle way. Under the administration of Taro Katsura (1848–1913), budget conferences were held to iron out policy differences. Japanese government in the prewar and early postwar era offers important lessons for today’s politicians.

The policy differences between the DPJ and the LDP are minor compared to those that divided the LDP and the SDP. Moreover, the Japanese people as a whole are less polarized and more politically sophisticated. Why, then, are today’s parties incapable of compromising or reaching any agreement?

One reason is the intense inter-party competition fostered by the winner-take-all elections in single-seat districts. In the past I was critical of Japan’s multiseat-district system, but it seems to me now that single-seat constituencies are an even greater evil. We need to consider reforming the electoral system again, this time with the aim of facilitating compromise. The timing may be right, since the court has ruled that malapportionment in both houses has now reached the point of creating a state of unconstitutionality.

Recent criticism of Japan’s political circus has gone so far as to declare Japan on the brink of a “second defeat”—not at the hands of Allied forces but due to the failure of its own political system. I cannot but agree with that assessment. The specter of defeat should spur us to adopt bold measures and a new direction. We cannot afford sit back and do nothing out of concern that change could bring instability. If reform offers any chance of rehabilitating our democratic system and stemming our nation’s decline, we must pursue it decisively.

Reprinted with permission from “Nidai seitosei: Genzai no jokyo wa daini no haisen, kenpo kaisei rongi no hitsuyo mo,” Asahi Journal , October 14, 2011, pp. 25–27.

    • 北岡 伸一/Shinichi Kitaoka }
    • Shinichi Kitaoka
    • Shinichi Kitaoka
    Areas of Expertise
    • Political and diplomatic history of Japan
    • United Nations
    • Japan-US relations
    • political parties and leadership

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