The Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the July 21 Upper House election and regained control of both chambers of the Diet, ending years in which the legislature was effectively divided and bills were held hostage.
In recent years, whatever force was in power, meaning in control of the Lower House, didn’t have a handle on the Upper House, including when the LDP was in the opposition from 2009 to 2012, resulting in stalled legislation and unstable politics, a situation Japanese term “the twisted Diet.”
During the LDP’s long unchallenged run from the early postwar period to the 1990s, the upper chamber was criticized for being a rubber stamp for whatever the ruling party dictated in the Lower House.
We now look at the Upper House and the times when it was held by the opposition camp:
How did the House of Councilors come into being?
Today’s Diet was created in 1947 under the postwar Constitution, which was primarily drafted by the Allied Occupation powers after Japan’s 1945 surrender.
The first charter called only for a unicameral parliamentary system, but the Japanese side pressed for a bicameral system like the one under the 1889 Meiji Constitution.
The Occupation initially rejected this demand, but eventually a bicameral system was adopted on condition that members of both houses are democratically elected.
Under the Meiji Constitution, what is now the Upper House was known as the House of Peers. Its members were from the Imperial family, descendants of feudal lords and others appointed by the Emperor. The House of Councilors was modeled on this, but its ranks are now elected by the voting public.
What role was the Upper House originally expected to play?
According to its secretariat, the chamber was created to reflect the opinions of people from various backgrounds and to check or complement the Lower House.
The bicameral system also theoretically provided more time and opportunities for the people to examine and revise important bills, because in order for bills to be passed, both chambers had to endorse them.
The Upper House was theoretically designed to be a bastion of common sense, a chamber less affected by elections and the partisan power games associated with the Lower House.
For that purpose, Upper House members are elected to six-year terms, and half of the chamber’s seats come up for grabs every three years.
Lower House members, on the other hand, are elected to four-year terms, although, due to various political hiccups, prime ministers find themselves compelled to dissolve the chamber and call early elections.
Does the upper chamber fulfill its role?
There has long been disagreement over this question, and even calls for the chamber to be abolished.
As noted, before the 1990s, the House of Councilors was regarded as a rubber stamp for whatever legislative actions the LDP approved in the House of Representatives.
For decades, the LDP held a majority in both chambers, with many of its members in the Upper House representing powerful interest groups, including national associations of doctors, post office heads, agricultural cooperatives, construction groups and relatives of war dead.
Those members tended to only be interested in protecting their vested interests, and to side with whatever the LDP fancied in the Lower House.
The 1998 Upper House election, however, came at a time of waning popularity for the LDP, which had for a few rare years in the early 1990s lost control of the Lower House. The party lost its majority in the upper chamber in the poll and was prompted to form a coalition with New Komeito to maintain a majority in the both chambers.
This effectively kicked off the era of the deadlocked Diet, in which the opposition camp, however disparate, had the most seats in the Upper House.
How badly has the divide in the Diet stalled politics?
To a considerable extent, the situation has weakened whichever party is in power and stalled important bills.
In the 2007 Upper House election, the LDP was crushed and the Democratic Party of Japan became the No. 1 party in the chamber for the first time. The opposition then used this leverage to shoot down a number of bills sponsored by the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc, and hold sway over political appointments, including the governor of the Bank of Japan.
Amid the turmoil started by the 2007 election, three subsequent LDP prime ministers — Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso — were all stymied by the legislative deadlock and ended up serving barely a year each.
When the DPJ took power in 2009 under the U.S. mantra of “change,” the obstructionist tactics didn’t stop. They only continued in a tit-for-tat fashion that saw three DPJ prime ministers — Yukio Hatoyama, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda, removed after about a year each — even as the latter two were guiding Japan through an unprecedented triple calamity that had rocked its confidence.
After the DPJ stumbled to defeat in the 2010 Upper House poll under Hatoyama, the LDP became the major opposition in the chamber, causing his successor, Kan, several problems as he tried to contend with the March 2011 disasters. The same thing happened to Noda.
In December, amid the DPJ’s disarray, voters returned the LDP and New Komeito to the Lower House helm.
The divided Diet also has seen the opposition pass censure motions against Cabinet ministers, including the prime minister. Since the war, four nonbinding censure motions were passed against Fukuda, Aso, Noda and Abe in the opposition-controlled Upper House.
Once a censure is passed, the opposition parties often use it as a pretext for boycotting Diet sessions until the target quits, making them powerful weapons.
This state of instability may have prompted voters — amid the third-lowest turnout ever — to hand the old guard a majority in the July 21 Upper House poll, observers say.
Now that the Diet is again under single-camp rule, will politics stabilize?
As far as Diet affairs are concerned, it will be easier for the ruling camp to its pass bills.
The next Upper House election won’t be held until July 2016, and if Prime Minister Abe can stay in control, Lower House members won’t face an election until December the same year.
Even with its absolute majority in both chambers, the ruling camp might be scorned if it passes unpopular bills that are hard for the public to swallow. This fear is prompting the ruling bloc steer clear of matters that divide the public — for now.
The ruling bloc won 135 seats in the upper chamber, giving it a so-called absolute majority, allowing it to dominate all standing committees and appoint their chiefs. But to demonstrate that it isn’t turning a deaf ear to the minority, the bloc has said it will allow the opposition to name the heads of six of the 17 panels.
Abe noted July 22 that the ruling camp can no longer blame a deadlocked Diet for its failures and said: “All the LDP members should be well aware of this.”
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