Reforming the Upper House

Areapportionment of Diet seats to rectify the disparity of the value of a vote between depopulated rural areas and populate urban areas is an important issue that lawmakers must tackle. In the absence of fair representation, people’s distrust in politics will only deepen. Along with this issue, how to strengthen the raison d’etre of the Upper House is another important issue. Without a properly functioning Upper House, the nation’s legislative process will fall into a state in which only parties’ numerical strengths count and deliberations become just formality. The Upper House must reform itself so that it can have deep and meaningful nonpartisan discussions on legislative issues.

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, a theorist of the French Revolution well-known for his 1789 pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?”, said that if the second chamber of parliament has a different view from the first chamber, it is harmful and that if it shares the same opinion with the first chamber, it is unnecessary. In fact, in the Upper House election campaign in July, the Japan Restoration Party and Your Party called for abolishing the Upper House.

But one need not embrace Sieyes’ extreme view. It must be kept in mind that lawmakers of the Lower House are not perfect simply because they are humans and because they may act only for the sake of partisan interests. The Upper House’s function to check government policies and bills submitted by the government and to improve bills is all the more important. If Upper House members of the ruling bloc think that their job is just to support and quickly pass bills submitted by the government and passed by the Lower House, their thinking is erroneous. This kind of thinking will only provide fodder for the view that the Upper House is carbon copy of the Lower House and therefore should be abolished.

Voters and Diet members can learn a lot from the suggestions made in 2000 by a panel of knowledgeable people on the roles of the Upper House. It listed three important roles of the Upper House: to reflect diversified opinions of the public; to exercise the functions of check and balance and supplement vis-a-vis the Lower House, and to discuss policies and legislative matters from a long perspective, which is made possible by Upper House members’ six-year terms.

There is a need to work out an election system that differs from that of the Lower House so that voters’ diverse opinions will be better reflected. A mechanism should be devised so that individual Upper House members can freely express their opinions and vote accordingly instead of being bound by their parties’s stances.

More discussion time should be given to independent members and members from minor parties. Parties and lawmakers must seriously consider how to use the six-year terms of Upper House members, free from the threat of dissolution of the chamber, in a way so that the Upper House as a whole will help produce laws that promote nonpartisan public interests as much as possible.