In 2005, the Japanese Upper
House defeated the government’s postal privatisation
bill. Several members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party voted with the
opposition. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took
this defeat as tantamount to a motion of no confidence against him and advised
the Emperor to dissolve the Lower House as per article 7 of the constitution.
This article looks at the traditional argument that parliamentary government
requires strong party discipline. It asks if party cohesion and discipline is
really central to the maintenance of parliamentary democracy and suggests that
unless parties allow members to engage in a free discussion and criticism of
government and to vote in accordance with their views, Parliament is unlikely
to be very successful. The more freedom a member is granted, the more
democratic is the legislative policy process. The paper argues that effective
policymaking needs democratic reform.
Japan is the first Asian county to have a
parliament, which it created in 1889 under the Meiji constitution.1 At that time it was called the Imperial Diet (Teikoku Gikai) and consisted of two Houses, the House of Peers
and the House of Representatives. The House of Peers was composed of members of
the Imperial family and those appointed by Imperial
decree. Members of the House of Representatives were elected by a limited
franchise (males paying over a certain amount in taxes). The movement for
universal male suffrage, which had begun around 1900, finally attained its goal
in 1925 through a sweeping revision of the House of Representatives Members
Election law which provided for electing members of the House by universal
adult male suffrage. After the Second World War, a new voting law was passed
extending suffrage to women, and a new Constitution, drafted by Allied
(American) Occupation authorities, came into effect on May 3, 1947. The
constitution proclaims that sovereignty resides with the people and that the
Emperor is the symbol of the state. The Imperial Diet became the National Diet.
The constitution declared that, “The Diet shall be the highest organ of
state power.”2 The House of Peers was replaced by an elected
House of Councillors. The allied occupation ended in
1952 and after a few years of political realignments, the conservative Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) came into being in 1955 as the largest political party.
It maintained its hold on power for almost forty years until 1993. During that
time, it initiated hundreds of pieces of legislation. The members in the Lower
House rose to 512 by the late 1980s, and the Upper House grew to 252.3
After 1983, a proportional representation system was
introduced in the Upper House.4 This system was also introduced in
the Lower House in 1994, and was first used in the 1996 general elections.5
Presently, the House of Representatives (Shuugiin)
has 480 members of whom 180 are elected under a proportional representation
system and 300 are single-seat constituencies. The term of office of the House
of Representatives is four years unless dissolved by the Prime Minister under
Article 66 of the postwar Constitution. In contrast, the House of Councillors (Sangiin) has
242 members, 98 of whom are elected by proportional representation and 149 from
the 47 prefectural constituencies. The term of the
members of the House of Councillors is six years,
half of the members being elected every three years. The table below shows the
strengths of the different parties in the Houses.
Legislative Process in the
Legislative procedure in Diet
can be divided into four stages—introduction, committee stage, plenary
sittings, and promulgation. The process begins with submission of a bill either
by Diet members or by the Cabinet. When a member initiates a bill, he or she
must have the support of twenty or more members of the House of Representatives
and ten or more of the House of Councillors. In both
cases, bills are presented to the House through the Presiding Officer. He then
refers the bill to the appropriate standing committee. On controversial
government bills, opposition parties request the government to explain them in
the plenary sitting. In the committee the bill is explained and detailed debate
and discussion follow. When necessary, public hearings, hearings of voluntary
testifiers, and combined meetings (meetings of related committees) are held.
After the end of the debate the bill is put to a vote. If any amendment is
proposed, it is also explained and put to a vote. After taking the final
committee decision on the bill, it is transmitted to the plenary session of the
House. Upon presentation of the committee report, the speaker places the bill
on the order of the day of a plenary sitting. The House discusses the bill and
votes on it. Once the bill is passed, it is sent to the other House for similar
procedures. When the two Houses reach different decisions regarding a bill, the
Conference Committee of both Houses meets to consider a compromise. After
passage by both Houses, it is submitted to the Emperor through the Cabinet by
the Presiding Officer of the House that is the last to pass the bill.
Strengths of Party Groups in
the Diet (as of August 2006)
House of Representatives
Party of Japan
and Club of Independents/The Democratic Party and The Shin-Ryokufukai*
People's New Party and New Party Nippon and
Group of Independents
Office of the House of Representatives, The National
*Democratic Party of Japan
and Club of Independents is applicable to the House of Representatives while
The Democratic Party and The Shin-Ryokufukai is applicable to the House of Councillors.
Party Behaviour and the Decay of Democracy
Political parties are
important variables of parliamentary effectiveness. From British experience,
Gary Cox argues that voters are party – oriented rather than candidate
oriented6 which compel the MPs to adhere to party policy. So, party
discipline strongly influences the parliamentary behaviour
of parliament members. The important questions with a view to exploring the
impact of party on the legislature’s autonomy and viscosity are:
- How organized are parties in parliament and how much
freedom do they permit in relation to voting and speaking?
- If they do not conform to the party line, are they punished?
- Are MPs allowed to cross the floor?
This section shows how parties
treated legislators of the same party who opposed the party position in some
important policy bills in Japan.
was one of the important priority issues of Koizumi government. In the first
attempt, the bills were passed in the Lower House cabinet committee by only one
vote and later squeaked through the Lower House by a margin of five votes on
July 5, 2005.7 There was trepidation among
the politicians, including Mr. Koizumi, the public, and observers that the
bills surely succumbed to death in the Upper House. Prime Minister Koizumi
threatened to dissolve the House of Representatives if the bills were rejected
in the Upper House. On August 8, 2005, the Upper House killed the bills when 22
LDP members voted against them and 8 others abstained in the vote.8 Shortly
after that, the Prime Minister did what he promised he would, punishing the
Lower House for the Upper House’s rejection of the bills by dissolving
the Lower House and calling for new election. Before the election the party
promised to penalize the dissidents. During the election the LDP took stern
steps to defeat the rivals, including forcing them from the party and not
granting them LDP endorsement in the campaigns. Instead, in several districts,
they sent politicians and other popular figures to run in their places, with
the media labeling them “assassins” and “Koizumi’s
children.” In other cases, the party actually supported
opposition/Independent candidates against the rivals.
In retrospect, this strategy
had three negative effects on the democratic process: (a) by posing the threat
to dissolve the House, Mr. Koizumi probably made an effort to influence the behaviour of those parliamentarians belonging to LDP, who
were against the bills; (b) Mr. Koizumi’s rules of the game put
the Diet under the extreme control of the executive; and (c) Attempts that were
taken to punish the rebels were interpreted as a sign of vindictive politics.
bills were not the only example in this regard. In the spring of 1987, LDP
leaders threatened to expel from the party those who opposed a sales tax bill.
By threatening the rebels with expulsion, LDP leaders succeeded in controlling
them.9 Nevertheless, in 1993 and 1994, many LDP Lower House members
and Social Democratic Party of Japan Councillors
members who did not follow their parties’ position on political reform
bill left their parties during deliberations.10
Party Control and the
Diet’s Legislative Role
Strict party control is
inherently a major source of problems associated with legislation. Between the
first and 164th session (1947 to 2006) on average eighty-eight
percent of cabinet-sponsored bills were passed in the Diet11, which
reveals that Japanese legislative process is cabinet-dominant. The preliminary
draft of a government bill is prepared by the bureaucrats and is scrutinised by the ruling party in its Policy Affairs
Research Council (PARC) before its placement before the Diet. Once a bill is
accepted by the PARC, its approval in the House becomes almost a foregone
conclusion. Hence, the Diet and its committees, by and large, act as a
‘rubber stamp’ of the cabinet. Tight party control prevents
parliamentarians from engaging in a free discussion of bills. The members are
expected simply to listen to what is discussed in committee rooms and to follow
their party’s direction. Specialists12 usually argue that
Parties should allow members to freely behave up to a certain extent. A similar
opinion was expressed by Sasaki Ryosaku, a Democratic
Socialist Party (DSP) parliamentarian when he was interviewed in 1970 by
political scientist Baerwald, a specialist on the
committee system. Mr. Sasaki said, “Our political parties must be
modernized, for which a first step would be to permit representatives to vote
independent of party discipline.”13 So, freedom of
parliamentarians in expressing their opinion both in the House and committees
is the prime issue of any democratic reform that deserves special attention.
Impact of Party Control
over Executive-Legislative Relations
A balanced executive-legislative
relationship is vital for strengthening the role of parliament. If a country
vests excessive powers in the hands of the executive branch it, therefore,
lacks the proper checks and balances a strong parliament could provide. Anthony
King14 identifies a number of modes of executive-legislative
relations of which the intra-party and the opposition mode are considered
politically significant. However, in both cases, government backbenchers can
contribute greatly. King mentions that government backbenchers are the most
important members in the House. Similarly Ahmed has written that “The
more government backbenchers are willing to dissent from the government and its
policies, the more likely is the prospect of parliament being assertive.”15
More specifically, party control deters backbenchers from playing the role of
dissident in House politics. Backbenchers follow the party line due to the fact
that their future depends on the party’s prospects. In fact, parties are
the prime movers in electoral politics.16
One way of breaking the party monopoly is for individual politicians to develop
personal reputations distinct from those of their party. Furthermore, electoral
rules outline the extent to which individual politicians can benefit electorally by developing personal reputations distinct
from those of their party.17 It is
noteworthy that the electoral politics of Japan make candidates dependent on
their respective parties. Carey and Shugart proposed
an ordinal scoring system of electoral systems according to the incentive to
cultivate a personal reputation. According to their theory candidates have the
opportunity to cultivate a personal vote.18 Legislators can maintain
their own personal campaign organizations (koenkai)
However, one has to take into account the electoral system. Personal reputation
is least important under a closed list system. Under this situation,
parliamentarians are not free from party control, unless the parties allow them
to engage in debates without restraint.
Party Control and the need
The Japanese legislative
process is in need of bipartisanship. Parliament’s role is reduced when
the ruling party and opposition do not find anything positive in each
other’s proposals. If the legislators simply follow their party
direction, the passage of government bills in the House becomes ceremonial.
More importantly, a partisan atmosphere lessens the viscosity of the
parliament—its capacity to resist, change, or
block the executive branch’s legislative proposal.
Bipartisanship, as this
article argues, can be built up at the party level and the individual level. At
the party level, bipartisanship is synonymous with consensuality.
The Japanese Diet shows a number of instances of consenses.
For example, the bill regarding the amendment of the electoral law was approved
in the Special Committee on Election System with the support of ruling and
opposition parties.19 The Non-Profit Organization (NPO) bill became
law on March 19, 1998, with the unanimous support of all the political parties.
The bill to provide financial and other necessary support to those who had been
abducted by North Korea and
who returned in Japan
was another good example in this regard. The bill was introduced by the
chairman of Health, Labor and Welfare Committee of the House of Representatives
and was enacted unanimously in the 155th extraordinary session. Two
North Korean sanctions bills were enacted in 2004 with the support of ruling
parties and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the biggest opposition in the
House and the same thing happened to the bill to establish special zones for
structural reform which was enacted in the 155th extraordinary session.
More recently (164th session, 2006) the ruling LDP, New Komeito, a member of the ruling coalition, and the
opposition DPJ agreed to a bill regarding media regulations. However, at the
individual level, such instances are, in fact, rare. Because the behavior of
parliamentarians from the ruling and opposition parties alike is guided by
party decision in Japan,
there is little opportunity for the development of bipartisanship.
Consequence of Party
Control over Professional Development of Diet Members
An informed membership is
better able to contribute to policy matters in the Diet. Therefore, an expert
and professional member is crucial for the
effectiveness of the Diet as a whole and its committees. The Diet, in theory,
offers the opportunity for legislators to develop expertise and professionalism
throughout their parliamentary career. For example, committees are capable of
offering parliamentarians a variety of incentives and opportunities, such as
encouraging them to build up a more specialised knowledge
of policy areas20, providing a means of keeping them busy and
feeling useful,21 and granting them more active and fulfilling
participation in the governing process.22 What is important in the
above mentioned activities is the extent to which legislators are allowed to
engage in free discussion in the Diet and its committees. If they are given
freedom to a great extent, they would be encouraged to concentrate more on the
policy issues, spontaneously express their opinion regardless of whether it corresponds
to the party position or not. As a result, the process helps build an internal
spirit of confidence, and makes the legislator more willing to be involved and
take risks in the process. Professionalism means that the legislator is
passionate about his or her parliamentary activities and free to decide what is
best for the constituency and the nation.
Apart from law-making, a
parliament has other functions such as latent legitimation,
interest articulation, and administrative oversight.23 Parliament
can only carry out these functions effectively if legislators are secure in the
freedom to speak in the Diet. By allowing different views to be expressed,
parliament fulfills an important function of latent legitimation.
In the case of interest articulation, constructive views of legislators act as
a guard against special interest of a particular group. Administrative
oversight is another important function of a modern legislature. Here also
freedom of MPs is vital.
Cabinet Government versus
Prime Ministerial Government
In Japan the prime minister is usually
also the president of the largest party (in this case the LDP for most of the
postwar). As party leader he can influence the party decision and nomination of
candidates in the Diet elections, which makes available to him necessary
carrots and sticks. As a result, he can impose some restrictions on his party's
parliamentarians in speaking in the Diet.
Theoretically, a Cabinet government is more democratic in its approach than a
prime ministerial government. The Japanese legislative process deserves more
pragmatic democratic reform, which should be based on the following cardinal
principles. First, party members should be given more freedom both in the House
and its committees. Second, bipartisanship is required to make legislation
effective. With a view to building a bipartisanship, the opposition should not
always oppose ruling party’s policy proposals and the ruling party should
not reject outright the opposition’s proposals. Third, following the Westminster model the
prime minister should leave either party presidency or House leadership. The
core principle of parliamentary democracy is democratic decision-making within
the assembly. Following this basic principle, Japan should initiate reform both
in the legislative process and inside the party politics.
1. K.V. Kesavan,
“The Role of Parliamentary Committees in Japan”
in K.V. Kesavan (ed.), Parliamentary Committees in
Japan and India: Their Functions and Relevance (New Delhi: Manak Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2003), p. 38.
2. The House of
Representatives, The National Diet of Japan (Tokyo:
Secretariat of the House of Representatives, 2005), p. 11.
3. J. A. A. Stockwin, Governing Japan (Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 1999), p. 114.
4. Wada Shuichi, “The
Election System and Political Reform” in Otake
Hideo ed., How Electoral Reform Boomeranged (Tokyo: Japan Center for
International Exchange, 1998), p. 173.
5. Akira Miyoshi, “The
Diet in Japan” in
Philip Norton and Nizam Ahmed eds., Parliaments in
Asia (London: Frank Cass, 1999), p. 84.
6. Gary W. Cox, The Efficient Secret: The Cabinet and the
development of political parties in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1987), p. 139.
7. The Yomiuri Shimbun (Tokyo),
October 15, 2005.
Zohan-giin e kibishiku taisho (The LDP decides to deal strictly with rebels
opposing the sales tax).” Asahi Shimbun
March, 1987, p. 1.
10. Wada Shuichi.
“Generational Change and Political Upheaval” in Otake
Hideo ed., Power Shuffles and Policy Process (Tokyo:
Japan Center for International Exchange,
2000), p. 213.
data were supplied by the Bureau of Research and Legislative Reference,
National Diet Library, supplemented by the author’s counting.
Ahmed, The Parliament of Bangladesh (Burlington: Ashgate,
2003), p. 161; Malcolm Shaw, “Conclusion” in J.D Lees and Malcolm
Shaw eds., Committees in Legislatures: A Comparative Analysis (Durham:
Duke University Press, 1979), p. 247.
13. Shaw eds., op. cit.
14. Anthony King, “Modes
of Executive-Legislative Relations: Great Britain,
France, and West Germany.”
Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol.1 No.1 (1976), pp. 11-36.
Ahmed “Parliament-Executive Relations in Bangladesh.” The Journal
of Legislative Studies, Vol. 3, No.4 (1997), p. 71.
16. David R. Mayhew, Congress:
The Electoral Connection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 18.
17. Richard F. Fenno, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1978); Gary C. Jacobson, The
Electoral origins of Divided Government: Competition in U.S. House
Elections, 1946-1988 (Boulder: Westview Press,
18. John M. Carey and Mathew Soberg Shugart, “Incentives
to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas.” Electoral Studies, Vol. 14, No.4 (1995), pp.417-439.
19. Junko Hirose,
“Legislative Record: The Japan
National Diet in 2004.” Japanese Journal of Political Science,
Vol. 4 (2004): p. 329.
20. H. Emy,
The Politics of Australian Democracy
(Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978), p. 406.
21. M. Rush,
“Parliamentary Committees and Parliamentary Government: The British and
Canadian Experiences.” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative
Politics, Vol 26, No.2 (1983), p. 151.
22. M. Jogerst,
Reform in the House of Commons (Lexington: The University Press of
Kentucky, 1993), p. 26.
23. Philip Norton, Does
Parliament Matter? (London: Harvester, 1993), p. 203.