National / Politics

Constitutional revision, casinos and labor reform top Japan's agenda as Diet prepares to open

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

After months of turmoil over a snap election, opposition realignment and stalled legislative progress, this year’s regular Diet session was scheduled to kick off Monday.

The five-month-long process will see the nation’s lawmakers discuss a slew of important bills in detail for the first time since the end of last year’s ordinary session in June.

A fall session of the legislature, convened in September, lasted just a few minutes after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hustled to dissolve it by calling a snap election. A monthlong special Diet session convened soon after the October election came no nearer to discussing any bill of political significance, with the opposition bloc focused primarily on dredging up cronyism scandals leveled at Abe.

The session will also play an important role in rebooting long-stalled debate on revising the nation’s postwar Constitution. The speed with which lawmakers discuss its revision over the months ahead will directly affect the odds of Japan’s first national referendum — a prerequisite for any constitutional amendment — taking place this year.

Among the bills likely to be high on the agenda is state-backed legislation that constitutes the centerpiece of Abe’s much-hyped “work-style reform” campaign, which seeks to curb the deeply ingrained culture of overwork while addressing income disparities between full-time and part-time workers.

Other possible highlights include a bill to specify rules on the structure of so-called integrated resorts — including casinos — as well as an amendment to lower the age of adulthood from 20 to 18. A revised bill to better regulate smoking in public areas is also expected to be submitted.

Aside from these bills, a record ¥97.7 trillion budget for fiscal 2018 featuring a rise in military spending amid North Korea’s missile threats will also come under scrutiny.

“This Diet session is going to be about our work-style reform platform,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Friday, expressing the government’s determination to pass the related bill “as soon as possible.”

The state-proposed bill eyes ushering in a system known as white-collar exemption, in which “specialist” personnel with annual incomes over ¥10.75 million, including financial dealers and analysts, will be paid based on their performance, not the hours they work.

Critics say, however, the system merely endorses unpaid overwork, even potentially increasing the risk of karoshi (death from overwork). The bill also seeks to cap the amount of legally permissible overtime at a yearly 720 hours, but makes an exception by stating that nearly 100 hours of monthly overwork is allowed during busy periods.

Critics have blasted the 100-hour threshold as problematic because it is equivalent to the level recognized by the labor ministry as likely to cause brain or heart illnesses.

“It’s almost equal to legalizing karoshi,” Akira Koike, secretariat head of the Japanese Communist Party, said on an NHK program Sunday morning. Other opposition parties have criticized the changes, too, with Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, telling reporters in Osaka on Thursday that the CDP will seek to cooperate with other opposition parties, including the Democratic Party and Kibo no To (Party of Hope), to jointly submit their own version of work-style reform legislation to the Diet, according to domestic media reports.

But the three opposition parties are, in fact, anything but united.

Both the CDP and Kibo no To are offshoots of the DP, whose Lower House membership splintered before the October general election, with members joining whichever party was closest to their ideological views. Just a handful of DP members chose to run as independents.

At the moment, the CDP enjoys by far the highest popularity among all opposition parties at 9.2 percent, compared with the DP at 1.3 percent and Kibo no To at 1.0 percent, according to the latest NHK survey.

Last week, top executives of the DP and Kibo no To attempted to seal a deal enabling the two parties to create a joint parliamentary group in a bid to maximize their say against the ruling bloc in the upcoming Diet session. That deal, however, failed to materialize after facing fierce resistance from rank-and-file members of both parties, further strengthening the image of opposition disarray.

The CDP, for its part, flatly refuses to collaborate with either of them, priding itself on being a group of political mavericks uninterested in the Diet “numbers game.”

There are, however, some areas where all three may be able to cooperate.

The three, for example, are on the same page in terms of their stance against the Abe administration’s work-style reform platform.

They are also united in their determination to further grill Abe over the Moritomo and Kake favoritism scandals, pursuing a line of argument that he is “privatizing” national politics by giving preferential treatment to his confidants. Like other opposition parties, they are also dead-set against an ongoing attempt by the ruling bloc to slash the amount of question time allocated to the opposition and to make Abe’s attendance at Diet committee meetings less mandatory.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a re-energized Diet debate on amending the Constitution looms large as the LDP seeks to call a referendum this year, per Abe’s stated wish of revising it by 2020.

Observers say the odds of meeting Abe’s self-imposed deadline drop sharply if a referendum fails to take place this year, with 2019 jammed with so many important events, including the Emperor’s abdication and the triennial Upper House election.

To kick-start debate on constitutional revision as soon as possible, the LDP is drafting an amendment proposal it aims to unveil at its annual convention in March, LDP executive Masahiko Shibayama said on NHK Sunday.