In Japan’s Diet, is there such a thing as too much time for questions?

Diet reforms have long been a topic of discussion. Is it time for change?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

It may be hard to find a workplace more rife with inefficiency and inertia than the national Diet.

After all, it’s where the prime minister and other Cabinet ministers sacrifice their time to an extent almost unthinkable in other developed nations, even though constructive policy discussions there so often give way to political wrangling with the opposition over gaffes and scandals.

With this year’s ordinary Diet session having kicked off last month talk of modernizing the nation’s legislature has once again resurfaced, as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party looks to ease the prime minister’s lengthy attendance at its deliberations as well as adjust the ratio of allocated question time in the party’s favor. Here is our look into the ongoing debate over Diet reforms.

What reforms are on the agenda?

To begin with, the LDP wants to slash the long hours Abe and other ministers typically spend attending Diet committee sessions, which is sometimes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

It is often said that the marathon routine takes up the bulk of the prime minister’s daytime schedule and is often accused of limiting his and other top officials’ opportunity to engage in diplomatic tours overseas, thereby even hurting Japan’s national interest.

The LDP also wants to adjust the ratio of question time allocated to the ruling and opposition camps.

It has been long-held custom in the Diet for the opposition to be afforded 80 percent of the total question time available for grilling the prime minister and other ministers, leaving just 20 percent for the ruling camp.

Is this the first time talk of Diet reform has come under the spotlight?

Hardly. In fact, sweeping reform of the Diet has been a recurring topic of conversation among Japanese lawmakers over the years, but so far their effort to bring about change has come up short.

As part of an attempt to invigorate policy discussions, a bill was passed in 1999 paving the way for the establishment of a committee tasked with holding the Japanese equivalent of Britain’s Question Time (QT).

Although the original agreement between the ruling and opposition camps was to hold such one-on-one debate with the prime minister for 40 minutes every Wednesday, the custom has never really taken root, with sessions having been held only a couple of times annually in recent years, according to a 2015 report by the National Diet Library. None were held last year.

Another major turning point came in 2014 when the LDP and seven other parties agreed to make the prime minister’s parliamentary attendance less frequent and let Cabinet ministers skip Diet sessions so they could attend international conferences more often.

But these pledges have never been fully implemented. Foreign Minister Taro Kono, for example, has been forced to relegate diplomatic trips to weekends lest they interfere with Diet duties on weekdays.

Why has the topic resurfaced?

Talk of modernizing the Diet system resurfaced at the end of last year when the LDP — emboldened by its sweeping victory in October’s general election — demanded the ruling bloc be given more question time in the legislature.

At the request of the LDP, the ratio of question time between the ruling bloc and opposition was re-balanced from 20 percent and 80 percent to 36 percent and 64 percent respectively during a special session of the Diet from November through December, according to media reports.

Abe’s government, too, backs a rethink of the proportions, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga voicing confidence that the prospect of LDP lawmakers enjoying a greater presence in the Diet will be well-received by the public, given the overwhelming mandate the party received in the October election.

What is controversial about efforts to change the ratio of question time?

Opposition lawmakers criticize the LDP’s bid to curtail their question time as inconsistent because it was the LDP itself, during its brief fall from power from 2009 to 2012, that demanded the opposition be granted more question time — successfully wrestling the 80 percent allocation from the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Now the LDP claims its landslide election victory last year justifies its lawmakers being afforded greater speaking opportunity in the Diet. Such a move, however, runs counter to the fundamental purpose of Diet questioning, said Yu Uchiyama, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo.

“The whole point of Diet questioning is for opponents of the government to scrutinize what it does,” he said, noting that in Japan the government and the ruling party are unerringly united in Diet deliberations due to a system that makes the submission of state-backed bills conditional on approval by LDP lawmakers beforehand.

“In Japan, rank-and-file lawmakers of the ruling party become docile to the government in the Diet,” Uchiyama said. “What’s the point in them questioning the government if they are supposed to act subordinate to it?”

A tone of subservience to the government was palpable last March when first-term LDP lawmaker Shigeru Doko, who was “questioning” Abe in an Upper House committee, abruptly began lavishing compliments on the way the prime minister buttons his jacket whenever he stands before the podium to address his questioners.

“Your comportment shows how supremely decorous you are in your response to our questions, and I find it to be a very desirous attitude. I will strive to emulate it,” said Doko, who later became the butt of online ridicule for what many took to be his overly ingratiating comment.

What are other highlights of the reforms?

Time and again, it has been pointed out that the nation’s prime minister and other top officials tend to spend too much time attending Diet sessions, even at the expense of diplomatic opportunities.

According to a probe conducted by the LDP, Abe spent a whopping 375 hours taking part in Diet sessions in 2016, versus 40 hours by his British counterpart from 2016 to 2017 and 34 hours by the German leader in 2015.

On Twitter, Kono recently made no secret of his annoyance over the fact that he has to remain seated in a Diet committee from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “even though there are so many other things I need to get done.”

Speaking to reporters last week, Kono pointed out that his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, made as many as 270 foreign visits over the last five years — over twice as many as the combined 110 he and his predecessor, Fumio Kishida, managed to tour during the same period.

Such a massive gap with China risks adversely affecting Japan’s standing when “compiling a chairman’s statement or joint communique in meetings such as those of ASEAN or APEC,” Kono said, emphasizing the need for more “effective” and “efficient” diplomacy.

Are there any concerns over the idea of freeing up the prime minister from Diet duties?

Critics say Abe’s reduced exposure to Diet questioning could amount to a significant loss of opportunities to hold him accountable.

At the moment, the budget committee in the Diet serves as one of the few venues where Abe is publicly pressed to explain himself over his controversial policies, missteps and even scandals.

Elsewhere the leader rarely faces tough grilling, as he holds news conferences only sporadically and shuns the twice-daily impromptu interviews with reporters that in the past provided the nation’s top leaders with constant media exposure.

Known as burasagari, the spontaneous, standing interviews with reporters in the corridors of the Prime Minister’s Office were introduced and deftly used by ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to get across his message effectively.

But the practice came to a halt after Naoto Kan, one of Koizumi’s successors, said he was too busy dealing with the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disaster to keep up the routine. Kan’s successor, Yoshihiko Noda, decided against its revival, and so did Abe, who said in a Facebook post soon after his inauguration that he can’t take the chance of blurting out anything rash in these impromptu settings and hurting the national interests, “given the weight of my words.”

Should Abe be freed up from his duty in budget committee sessions, “the QT system should instead be utilized more actively to create an opportunity for the opposition to question the prime minister,” Uchiyama said.

The opposition, however, isn’t too thrilled about rebooting the QT culture at the cost of their chance to corner Abe in the budget committee.

To them, hourslong grilling of Abe in the committee is strategically more favorable than a 45-minute exchange in the QT.

“There is no doubt that we can have a more meaningful discussion in the budget committee,” said a lawmaker of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

“At the moment, there is little momentum within our party for the resumption of the QT,” he said.