Tokyo Notes

Less Power Please?

Plans released this week for reforming the House of Councillors struggle to see the wood from the trees.

Excuse me, but isn’t Japan’s upper house missing the wood for the trees?

House of Councillors President Takeo Nishioka unveiled plans this week for reforming the upper chamber. The proposed reforms focus on vote disparities between different constituencies in upper house elections. While it’s true the current situation has recently been deemed unconstitutional or ‘in an unconstitutional state,’ surely the most important upper house issue is its strength relative to the lower house, a factor that’s now consistently causing political gridlock in Japan’s parliament?

Nishioka’s plan can be commended for simplifying the overly complicated upper house election system with its combination of proportional representation and multi-seat prefectural constituencies, while trying to find some middle ground in giving rural and urban voters the same voice.

As for the need for this reform, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest daily, gave an example of the vote discrepancy at issue in its Thursday editorial:  the provincial upper house constituency of Tottori Prefecture in Western Japan has less than 500,000 voters for one seat, while Tokyo has more than 10 million voters for five seats. In other words, residents of Tottori are seen to have more of a say in who represents them.

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Fine tuning isn’t going to resolve this problem, such as it is, hence the need for Nishioka’s plan. The Yomiuri wasn’t alone in also pointing out that adjustments to the system need to be considered carefully since they can affect parties in different ways depending on their size, location and organizational structure.

There are a multitude of points to be discussed and addressed. But isn’t this also a classic case of failing to see the bigger picture due to overconcentration on the details?

If the major task of reforming the upper house is going to be undertaken, surely the most important issue to be discussed is its relative strength? Isn’t it an electoral problem to have a party voted in with a strong mandate in the lower house in the autumn of one year stopped in its tracks through an upper house election the following summer?

For all the DPJ’s failings, it should also have been given a fair crack at the whip in trying to carry out its (once) ambitious plans without having to constantly fear electoral wrath. When people vote in the lower house election, it should mean something. When people give a party a mandate, the government formed under that mandate should be given time to take important action that’s necessary for the long-term benefit of the nation, without having to worry about the next upper house election a few months down the line. The upper house should not be allowed to block lower house legislation so easily. As I said in a previous entry, with the politicians constantly worrying about elections, there’s little wonder the bureaucrats are relied upon to run the country.

But are we likely to see opposition parties agree to a weakening of the upper house? Not likely when it has become the main tool for the opposition to put pressure on the administration (by both the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan alike).

Nor are we likely to see the power of the upper house weakened, if it’s down to the leader of that very chamber to design those reforms. After all, where’s the politician who says, ‘Less power, please!’