Japan from the inside out

The moribund diet of Japanese politicians

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 30, 2009

A FEW WEEKS AGO, an observant reader passed along a link to one of those blind-leading-the-blind articles about Japan that appeared in an overseas newspaper. The author, a non-Japanese who lives in this country, declared in the text that Japanese politics were “moribund”.

Mr. Japan Hand apparently doesn’t follow Japanese politics too closely. If he did, he would have already seen the following statements—direct quotes all—by politicians that have appeared in the past fortnight. They’ve been discussing the possibility of reapportioning the Diet by reducing the number of seats. Keep in mind this issue isn’t even on the political front burner—it’s just one of the many ideas being batted around with reform in the air.

The recent debate seems to have been jump-started by firebrand reformer Watanabe Yoshimi and ex-bureaucrat Eda Kenji, who recently published a book presenting their ten-point program to remake Japanese government. One of those points calls for slashing the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).

Suga Yoshihide

Suga Yoshihide, (Koga faction) the deputy chief of election campaigns for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, offered a more modest proposal during a speech to a local party meeting in Saga:

“(Our party platform) should include the reduction of at least 50 Diet seats from the 480 in the lower house, about 10%.”

Mr. Suga’s reasoning was that municipal mergers and other governmental reforms have lowered the number of seats in legislatures at the sub-national level throughout the country. He wants to use this plank as a weapon in the coming electoral battle with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which in part will be fought over which party is the more credible reformer. As Mr. Suga is known to be close to Prime Minister Aso, the proposal is not to be taken lightly. He added:

“The winds are not blowing in a favorable direction for the LDP. We should first show our resolve to make sacrifices, and then make a point of insisting during the campaign that we cannot entrust the government to the DPJ.”

Hatoyama Yukio

New DPJ Party President Hatoyama Yukio then saw Mr. Suga’s bet of 50 and raised him 30 during a Tokyo press conference:

“I have proposed that the number (of lower house seats) be reduced by about 80. It might be included in our next party platform. Fifty is not enough.”

To be fair, he’s just restating a previous DPJ proposal. Their platform for the 2007 upper house elections included a plank that called for eliminating the same number of the 180 proportional representation seats in the lower house.

Koshi’ishi Azuma

Koshi’ishi Azuma (Yokomichi group), one of three DPJ acting presidents (with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto) and chair of the party’s upper house caucus, then made the following suggestion at a press conference:

“It isn’t possible to lower the number of lower house seats by 80 while increasing the number of upper house seats. We must embark on a course of reduction.”

Remember that he’s on the same team as Mr. Hatoyama. But no sooner did he offer this tasty morsel than he snatched it back:

“A decision won’t be reached (about including the idea in the next platform) until we hear the opinions of the other opposition parties.”

In other words, he’s all hat and no cattle. The “other opposition parties” include such DPJ allies and fellow travelers as the People’s New Party, the Social Democrats, and the vanity parties of Suzuki Muneo The Scandalous and Tanaka Yasuo The Lecherous. Most of those parties would evaporate without proportional representation seats, so it’s a safe bet that Mr. Koshi’ishi won’t even seek their opinion. (The party could afford to take a strong stand in 2007 when it was numerically much weaker. They’re certainly not going to kick their bedfellows out from under the covers now that they’re close enough to power to smell it. At least not right away, anyway.)

If the two major parties keep raising the stakes, they might wind up at Watanabe Yoshimi’s position of eliminating the proportional representation seats altogether. But that won’t happen until after an election and a political reorganization. Both of the primary parties still need the smaller parties for the upcoming election, and most of the politicos are waiting to see how that shakes out before taking any drastic new steps.

Mori Yoshiro

Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, one of the Big Cheeses of the zombie wing of the LDP, confirmed the old saying about blind squirrels and acorns by pointing out the obvious:

“It would be great if the Communist Party did us the favor of disappearing, but the people who want to reduce the lower house to 300 should go to New Komeito, get their approval, and bring it back to us….We might not need 180 proportional representatives, but the Communist Party and New Komeito will fight it tooth and nail. I wonder if the folks who are saying those things are capable of girding their loins to do battle with New Komeito.”

Mr. Mori is probably alluding to the capacity for harassment of both New Komeito and their backers in Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. They can be very unpleasant when aroused. Eliminating those seats would decimate New Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition.

He also brought up Ozawa Ichiro’s effort to convince the late Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo to do away with some proportional representation seats in 1999 when the LDP was governing in a coalition with the Liberal Party, Mr. Ozawa’s vehicle at the time.

“Mr. Ozawa tried to forcibly eliminate proportional representation districts. Basically, he hates New Komeito. Calling for the seats to be reduced without knowing about those circumstances, and then saying we won’t lose to the DPJ, is a truly stupid idea.”

And yes, Mr. Ozawa does hate New Komeito. It’s no coincidence that the DPJ made loud noises last year about grilling former party leader Yano Junya in the Diet after he filed a suit against Soka Gakkai, claiming that they tried to force him to stop working as a political commentator.

Some are suggesting that the DPJ might try to seduce New Komeito into changing partners. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that idea, even considering the anything-goes default position of Japanese politics.

Shii Kazuo

That leaves the Communist Party of Japan. Here’s what JCP Chair Shii Kazuo said at a press conference when he got wind of the downsizing plans:

“The idea is that if there are two parties in the Diet, then other parties won’t be necessary. That is undermining democracy from its foundation.”

When it comes to undermining the foundation of democracy, the Communist Party is the go-to source to learn all about it. Remember all those Democratic People’s Republics they used to have? And they’ve still got one in Pyeongyang!

The last one is from LDP party executive Ishihara Nobuteru, who has also served as party policy chief and twice as Cabinet minister, once in charge of governmental reform:

“My thinking is roughly the same as that of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. It would be best to amend the Constitution in 10 years, create a unicameral legislature by combining the upper and lower house, and use (districts with multiple representatives).

So, a serious competition is underway about how many seats to slash from the Diet—not if—and the debate over the past week to 10 days has included the possibility of neutering several smaller parties and eliminating one of the houses altogether.

And some people are getting paid to write that Japanese politics is moribund?

Bonus Communist Party quote!

Mr. Shii also chimed in on the topic of whether the government has the authority to order pre-emptive military strikes against foreign countries:

“Using the activities of North Korea to tread onto dangerous territory is to create a vicious circle of military response. It would destroy the Constitution and destroy world peace. We absolutely will not approve of it.”

One of the Japanese equivalents of the proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” roughly translates as “Mix with crimson and you’ll turn red.”

How appropriate, considering the circumstances.

Now try this one: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Bonus political joke!

The DPJ and one of their splinter group allies, the People’s New Party, have been holding negotiations over how to deal with one of the electoral districts in Kanagawa. Both parties have promising candidates they want to run in the district, but they don’t want to go head-to-head, and neither wants to back down.

New DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio, known in some quarters as “the man from outer space”, announced that the parties had reached an agreement and the DPJ candidate would be the one to run.

This angered their PNP friends, who said that no decisions had been made and that the two parties were still negotiating.

Right after the disagreement became public, leaders from the two parties met for a conference. The DPJ side included such heavyweights as Kan Naoto and Okada Katsuya, but Mr. Hatoyama did not attend.

When the discussions began, PNP representative Kamei Shizuka observed:

“Looks like only the earthlings showed up today.”

A DPJ-led government promises to be hugely entertaining!

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