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THE DIET

The nuts and bolts of the legislature

by Reiji Yoshida

The Diet is the center of Japanese politics. It’s where ruling and opposition lawmakers play power games and employ tactics in both open and backroom negotiations. With this year’s ordinary legislative session set to start Thursday, following are some basic facts about the parliamentary system:

Why is the legislature called the Diet?

The prewar parliament under the Meiji Constitution was modeled on that of imperial Germany, which is called the Diet in English. The term dates to the assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled most of Central Europe from 962 to 1806. Imperial Germany was chosen as the state model because Japanese leaders wanted a powerful system centered on the Emperor.

What constitutes the Diet?

The Diet consists of the 480-seat House of Representatives, also called the Lower House, and the 242-seat House of Councilors, or the Upper House.

What are the functional differences between the two chambers?

The House of Representatives is more powerful. As a general rule, a legislative bill must clear both chambers before enactment, but the decision of the Lower House prevails on three key issues: selection of the prime minister, adoption of the budget and approval of a treaty.

Even if the Upper House votes down a bill, the Lower House can override the decision with support of two-thirds or more of its members.

What kinds of sessions are held by the Diet?

The Diet holds ordinary, extraordinary and special sessions.

An ordinary session is convened once a year, usually in late January. It runs for 150 days until mid-June.

The main focus for the first three months of an ordinary session is the year’s budget draft, because the fiscal year ends on March 31.

After the ordinary session, the Cabinet usually convenes an extraordinary session in the fall to deliberate pending bills.

A special session is convened to choose a new prime minister within 30 days of a general election.

How does the length of a Diet session affect politics?

All bills submitted to the Diet are automatically scrapped at the end of a session unless action is taken to carry them over to the next session. Thus, opposition parties often try to kill a bill backed by the government and ruling camp by dragging out the deliberations in protest.

The prime minister often delivers a televised speech at the beginning of a Diet session. Why?

The prime minister delivers the General Policy Speech at the outset of ordinary sessions to outline policy plans for the year, followed by similar speeches by the finance minister, foreign minister, and economic and fiscal policy minister.

The prime minister also must deliver a policy speech at the outset of extraordinary and special sessions. Other ministers deliver speeches for those sessions when considered necessary.

What is the current strength of each party in the two chambers?

The ruling coalition — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — hold a majority in both chambers. A breakdown for Lower House seats (female Diet members are in parentheses) shows the LDP holds 306 (27), the Democratic Party of Japan and Club of Independents 113 (10), New Komeito 31 (four), the Japanese Communist Party nine (two), the Social Democratic Party seven (two), People’s New Party and Group of Independents five (none), and independents nine (none).

In the Upper House, the LDP has 111 (12), the DPJ and Shin-Ryokufukai 82 (11), New Komeito 24 (five), the JCP nine (three), the SDP six (one), PNP four (one), independents four (one), and two seats vacant.