Commentary / Japan

The ongoing collapse of parliamentary politics

The past month has witnessed an increasingly serious phenomenon indicating the collapse of parliamentary politics. During the Diet committee interpellations on the Kake Gakuen scandal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused to answer questions, wasted time on idle talk and jeered at opposition lawmakers asking questions even though he tells the opposition side not to jeer when he’s speaking. When opposition lawmakers asked a question, he would mutter that it was stupid. Abe lacks adult common sense.

The suspicions involving Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, and the government’s response to the allegations over them, indicate that Japan is moving backward from a modern state governed by law to a pre-modern patrimonial state. A patrimonial state is one in which there is no distinction between the private property of those in power and the public assets of the state, and the people in power can utilize state property or their political power for private purposes. Bureaucrats in a patrimonial state are in servitude to those in power. State officials do not perform their jobs on the basis of law. When the master says white is black, they nod their heads in agreement.

The conspiracy crime law enacted in the just-concluded Diet session runs counter to the concept of “no punishment without law,” a basic principle under the modern criminal justice system. In that it could allow for discretionary powers of the police to suppress civil liberties, the law also contributes to the return to a patrimonial state.

Special favors allegedly provided to Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen represent the discretionary use of state property and power. To curry favor with the powers that be, bureaucrats ignore the law and destroy official documents and cover up government corruption. A journalist who flatters those in power escapes prosecution for a heinous sex crime as top police officials hush it up. Abe is indeed the master of a patrimonial state.

The former administrative vice education minister, who testified to the existence of documents that suggest the strong influence of people close to the prime minister in the government decision on the Kake Gakuen case, apparently wanted to demonstrate that he was a modern civil servant who follows the law, not a pawn in a patrimonial system who serves those in power.

Abe’s irregular behavior in the Diet come from his lack of understanding of the rules and manners required in the public sphere of discourse, which explains why he brings his private sphere behavior into it. His arrogance led me to recall the phrase “senorite satisfecho” (satisfied young man) in Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “Revolt of the Masses.” Ortega expresses concern that banal people, or spoiled children, have come to control society. As he discusses these people, Ortega writes, “The family circle … tolerates many acts which in society, in the world outside, would automatically involve disastrous consequences for their author. But the man of this type thinks that he can behave outside just as he does at home; believes that nothing is fatal, irremediable, irrevocable.”

Abe is “the man of this type.” As Ortega says, a return to aristocracy — where the rulers are required to fulfill noble duties — will be unthinkable. But still, public/private distinction is the basic principle in a politics of discourse and fair administration. Democratic politics will be endangered if those in power disdain an opponent or a discussion with their bare, private emotions. For those in public office, exercising their administrative power to fulfill their private needs is equal to stealing public assets. If such acts are allowed to go on, the government’s legitimacy will be imperiled.

The Abe administration may have been confident that its public support would not go down no matter what it did. But the public is starting to harbor doubts about it. In media surveys taken just after the regular Diet session closed, the Abe Cabinet’s approval ratings plunged by roughly 10 percentage points and in some polls disapproval exceeded support. Abe’s clout may further decline if his Liberal Democratic Party loses ground in the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.

Abe’s sole dominance of the political scene has begun to change. Now that the real state of his administration is being exposed, chances will rise that the major political agenda, including the constitutional revision on which the prime minister is expected to pour his utmost energy, will be subject to decent discussions both within the ruling coalition and the opposition camps.

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

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