Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Petty Diet

The 120th birthday of Japan’s parliament should have been a day of reflection, not an excuse for squabbling.

With Japan’s parliament celebrating its 120th anniversary on Monday, this week should have been a time for celebrating the country’s democratic process. It could also have been a timely occasion to reflect on whether reform is needed to stop the legislative process succumbing to gridlock as a result of the divided Diet. Instead, we saw the two main parties bickering over contraventions of royal protocol.

Japan’s Diet held its first meeting on November 29, 1890 and a ceremony to mark the anniversary of this historic day was held Monday with members of the Japanese royal family in attendance. Not that many Diet members seemed that interested. Supposedly nearly half of them didn’t bother to show up at all. So much for pride in your occupation!

Then an indiscrete remark by a senior Democratic Party of Japan politician led to a childish squabble between the nation’s two main political parties, who are already involved in a sullen parliamentary stalemate.

Hiroshi Nakai, chairman of the lower house budget committee, apparently commented to another Diet member that Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko should sit down to allow everyone else to do so. The remark was something along the lines of, ‘Hurry up and sit down. We can’t take a seat otherwise,’ and was overheard by Your Party upper house member Fumiki Sakurauchi, who described it as a jeer on his Ameba blog. All the main dailies picked up on this story, although some gave rougher versions of the remark than others.

Nakai’s comment was inappropriate, disrespectful and shouldn’t have been made, but at the same time, it wasn’t shouted out for all to hear.

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But the opposition at the moment, just like the DPJ when it was on the other side of the divided Diet, couldn’t resist the chance to score points. The Liberal Democratic Party and Your Party were among those who submitted a motion on Wednesday that Nakai should be punished.

As if enough valuable Diet time wasn’t already being wasted, the DPJ failed to rise above it all, and instead submitted its own motion calling for the LDP’s Ichiro Aisawa to be punished for letting his phone ring during the ceremony.

Since the LDP is already boycotting debate involving two DPJ cabinet members who were censured last week for an information leak, one wonders what else the Diet did manage to achieve in this last week of its extra session.

These legislators should be debating and passing laws to meet the nation’s needs and tackle its problems, not squabbling like this. No wonder Japan’s bureaucrats have long had to fill the role of national policymakers…

Reflecting on 120 years of the Diet, shouldn’t Japan’s parliamentarians be discussing how to strengthen their parliamentary system rather than making a mockery of it? Every legislature in the world has its moments bordering on absurdity when it comes to the rough and tumble of interparty wrangling. But the whole issue of the divided Diet in Japan needs to be addressed seriously to enable a party with a mandate to actually get on with running the country, and to this end surely Japan’s upper house (which can block most legislation if there isn’t a two-thirds majority in the lower house) should be weakened to resemble second chambers in many other democracies?

If that’s not possible, then the staging of upper house elections should certainly be rethought. Holding an upper house poll within 10 months of a general election, as happened this year, goes beyond the concept of a midterm election passing judgement on an administration halfway through its mandate. Instead it encourages short-termism, obsession with opinion polls and pointless point-scoring as seen this week.

But will Japan’s legislators get round to debating this topic anytime soon? I very much doubt it.