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Parliamentary democracy without a viable opposition

by Jiro Yamaguchi

A series of events took place recently demonstrating that the foundation of Japan’s democracy has become fairly fragile. Particularly noteworthy are the issue surrounding the Emperor’s political role and lawmakers’ approach to it.

Under the Constitution, the Emperor is “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” and “shall not have powers related to government.” Japan’s Imperial system is a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch “reigns but does not govern.”

However, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have indeed been issuing political messages quite frequently — in ways that can only be inferred from between the lines.

One example is the remark made by the Empress about the Constitution during a news conference on Oct. 20 marking her 79th birthday. “It seems to me that this year … we saw more active discussion regarding the Constitution than in previous years,” the Empress said, and went on to talk about some constitutional drafts created by members of the “freedom and civil rights movements” before the Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889. She characterized those drafts as a “rare cultural asset in the world as a document of how ordinary citizens in Japan had already developed an awareness of civil rights at the end of the 19th century.”

The “active discussion” can be interpreted to refer to the debate about revising the Constitution as pursued by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The remarks by the Empress can also be interpreted as her implicit assertion that freedom and democracy are the values that represent the tradition of modern Japan.

The Emperor meanwhile visited Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, in October — the place where the Minamata disease, the worst industrial pollution in Japanese history, broke out. The victims have for long faced discrimination and many of them have been denied official recognition by the government as patients of the disease, and thus have been denied public relief measures.

Speaking in front of such people, the Emperor said that he would like to work toward “creating a society where people can live upholding the truth.” The remark can be interpreted as the Emperor’s objection to a statement made just before his speech by Abe, who told an international conference on the Minamata Convention on Mercury that Japan “overcame” the Minamata disease.

Novelist Genichiro Takahashi, in his commentary in the Oct. 31 issue of the Asahi Shimbun on recent opinion articles, quoted the Empress’ words on the Constitution and said he highly values the remarks. It is quite unusual that statements by members of the Imperial family are taken up in such a newspaper column.

On the same day, Upper House member Taro Yamamoto handed a letter to the Emperor during a garden party hosted by the Imperial couple, in which he reportedly tried to tell of the plight suffered by people who are affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Later he was criticized for his act.

Both Takahashi and Yamamoto take a liberal or progressive political position and oppose the Abe administration’s agenda to revise the Constitution and restart nuclear power plants. And the two events that happened on the same day indicate that progressive-minded people in Japan have gone as far as to rely on the Emperor’s authority to justify their own arguments.

I myself was moved by the words of the Emperor and the Empress. The Imperial couple has now become the symbol not only of the unity of the people but also of postwar democracy.

During a ceremony organized by the Abe administration on April 28 to mark the anniversary of the day that Japan regained independence from postwar occupation with the San Francisco Peace Treating going into force, participants shouted “Tenno Heika banzai!” (Long Live the Emperor!), at which point the Emperor showed an expression of apparent bewilderment. This indicates that there is a gap between the values symbolized by Emperor Akihito and the ideological direction of the Abe administration.

However, it is taboo to use or rely on the authority of the Emperor because it is not known what political values the persons who accede to the throne in the future will have. Political debate must be made in the Diet, and in the realm of civil society. How people evaluate the Emperor’s messages should be kept personal. If people start competing with each other to resort to an absolute authority when they make political remarks, it would lead to the collapse of freedom of speech.

The situation in which opinion leaders in the progressive camp feel like relying on the authority of the Emperor points to a crisis of democracy. The flip side of this situation is the absence of a reliable opposition party in Japan’s parliamentary democracy. Although nearly a year has passed since falling from power, the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition party, is still unable to adopt a political direction that squarely puts it in confrontation with the Liberal Democratic Party.

In the current Diet session, the Abe administration is pushing for a set of legislations that aim to strengthen its power, such as a bill to protect special state secrets and a bill to create the Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council. But the DPJ continues to assume only vague stances on these moves.

Objectively speaking, the only viable political direction for the DPJ to take should be positioning itself to the left of the LDP and seek support from middle-of-the-road citizens. However, the party continues to be a mix of progressive and conservative members who spend so much energy trying to build consensus among themselves that they are unable to put up a resolute stance to challenge the government and the ruling parties.

There are moves within the opposition camp to build an alliance or seek realignment of parties to fight the dominant force of the overwhelming ruling parties. But Nippon Ishin-no-kai (Japan Restoration Party), the No. 2 opposition party, is more right-leaning than the LDP and it is meaningless for the DPJ to work together with it.

Before exploring a realignment of opposition parties, DPJ members must fully discuss the party’s political direction among themselves — without fearing an internal division that could lead to the breaking up of the party — and determine which course the DPJ should take.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.