Majority rule is a basic feature of democracy. This principle, however, has often gone through violent contortions when it comes to voting in the Diet, a phenomenon rarely if ever observed in other advanced democracies.
One such melee occurred last July, when a House of Councilors committee voted on a contentious bill to allow Ground Self-Defense Force troops to be sent to Iraq on a humanitarian mission.
Opposition lawmakers swarmed the chairman’s seat in a vain attempt to block passage of the bill, only to tangle with members of the ruling bloc trying to protect Chairman Ryuji Matsumura.
“I don’t always condone such confrontations, but there are cases in which we need to do something to demonstrate to the people the importance of certain issues,” said Azuma Koshiishi, 67, a Democratic Party of Japan member and an instigator of the ruckus.
At the time, Koshiishi was head of the DPJ’s Upper House Diet Affairs Committee.
The minority may be unable to block the majority. But as in the July case, the minority sought to demonstrate, with its attention-grabbing resistance, the majority’s arrogance, and to win concessions.
Such Diet dramas are a product of the lengthy, almost unbroken postwar rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, and the opposition’s knee-jerk posture that has clearly been focused on living up to its literal definition — that is, opposing anything the LDP wants.
For the opposition camp, the boycotting of Diet debate became one of the few options available to block policy maneuvers, a tactic initiated by the LDP’s former arch foes, the Socialists, now known as the Social Democratic Party.
In addition to boycotting proceedings, the opposition sometimes tries to wrest the microphone away from the committee chairman when a bill is brought to a vote, and tries to tear up the minutes of the balloting, thus destroying the record of the vote.
“The ruling bloc gets its way and has the bill passed, while the opposition gets the chance to show the people it has fought to the end,” said Hideaki Maeda, who was an Upper House official for 38 years and is now a law professor at Komazawa University.
The late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita even admitted in his memoirs, published in 2001, that there were cases of violence “that were agreed upon in advance” by the ruling and opposition parties — both accepted their roles.
The “gyuho,” or ox-walk, is another opposition ploy to delay voting in plenary sessions, in which lawmakers virtually crawl to the ballot box.
Opposition lawmakers took 13 hours to cast their ballots via this tactic when they voted in 1992 on a bill to allow the Self-Defense Forces to participate in peacekeeping missions.
Politicians in other nations have different vote- or legislation-blocking tactics, such as the Senate filibuster in the U.S. and the lengthy speeches in European legislatures by opposition lawmakers.
Long speeches are rare in Japan due to legal provisions that facilitate the easy closure of debates. For example, a motion submitted by only 20 Diet members can place a time limit on debate.
Opposition party politicians have thus had to rely on tactics other than long-winded speeches, according to Maeda of Komazawa University.
But the ox-walk has apparently lost any public appeal it might once have had. In fact, by 1992, the media had started calling it meaningless.
Since the DPJ became the largest opposition force in 1998, the Diet has become markedly quiet.
DPJ lawmakers in their 30s and 40s, aware of media criticism, now consider the ox-walk and other old strategies to be anachronistic.
They feel they must demonstrate their ability to lead the government and offer viable policy alternatives, and not just oppose everything the LDP advocates.
“Times have changed and we are hopeful there will be a power shift (at the polls someday),” said Shinji Tarutoko, 44, deputy head of the DPJ’s Lower House Diet Affair Committee. “We need to act accordingly and prove we have the ability to hold the reins of government.”
Instead of putting up physical resistance, the DPJ is now focused on presenting alternative proposals to those of the government on key issues, aiming to win concessions from the ruling bloc, Tarutoko said.
One example was seen during deliberations on the war contingency legislation last year, when the DPJ persuaded the ruling coalition to include provisions protecting constitutionally guaranteed human rights in the event that the SDF is mobilized domestically to defend Japan. The DPJ had actually sided in principle with the ruling bloc’s position.
This DPJ stance, however, gave voters the impression that its goals were converging on those of the ruling parties, making it hard to differentiate between the two.
With little resistance from the DPJ, Diet deliberations proceeded more smoothly, which has pleased the ruling bloc but has provoked veteran politicians into accusing the DPJ of naive toadyism.
“Discussing real issues, making amendments if necessary and taking a vote. That’s what the Diet should be doing,” said Junji Higashi, a 57-year-old New Komeito lawmaker who heads the party’s Diet Affair Committee.
Tsuruo Yamaguchi, former secretary general of the SDP’s predecessor, said the DPJ put up only lukewarm opposition to the troop dispatch to Iraq.
When Yamaguchi was secretary general of the Socialists in 1987, the opposition’s ox-walk succeeded in scrapping a contentious sales tax bill.
Although DPJ leader Naoto Kan called the troop dispatch “unconstitutional,” the deployment won easy approval. The opposition boycotted the Lower House plenary session, but for just under two days.
“The minority cannot correct the government unless hardball measures are taken,” Yamaguchi stressed.
As July’s Upper House election nears, frustration has meanwhile begun to emerge within the DPJ, especially among senior lawmakers who claim their party is being looked down upon by the LDP.
DPJ lawmaker Yukio Ubukara, 56, said junior members are bent on proving the party has what it takes to run the government and are forsaking real strategies to gain that power.
“They firmly believe the boycotting of debates is evil. But in reality, they are forced to fight in the ring with the ruling bloc, and the DPJ is failing to project its own identity.”
The DPJ is working on a counterplan to the government-sponsored pension-system reform bill. But frustrated senior members are demanding a harsher, more opposition-style approach, including boycotting deliberations.
“The Diet trend of taking up substantial issues should be welcomed, but the opposition must do more to appeal to the people,” Maeda of Komazawa University said.