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Time to reform Japan’s political parties

by Ichiro Asahina

In Japan, the most frequently discussed political matters are scandals involving high-ranking lawmakers and bureaucrats. Probably most people who follow politics would agree that the Moritomo and Kake Gakuen scandals have been the two biggest issues in Japan’s political scene over the past year. Major newspapers and television broadcasters, along with the opposition parties and their members in the Diet, have taken up these issues almost daily and attacked the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Either Abe or his wife has been accused of directly or indirectly ordering bureaucrats to give special favors in the process of selling a government-owned tract of land (the Moritomo case) or in the process of authorizing the establishment of a new department at a university under a special deregulatory zone scheme (the Kake Gakuen case). Recently, the top bureaucrat (administrative vice minister) of the most powerful ministry — the Finance Ministry — was alleged to have verbally sexually harassed a female journalist. The vice minister, Junichi Fukuda, was effectively forced to resign.

As a former bureaucrat of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry who worked for the national government for 14 years, it’s my feeling that the prime minister did not give any special order to his subordinates either in the Moritomo or Kake case. Not only myself but many people realize the tentative truth is that neither Abe nor his wife are guilty in either case. That is how the rarely used Japanese word “sontaku” — subordinates guessing what their bosses are thinking and acting without orders — has suddenly spread across the country and become a household term. Now a sontaku manju (steamed bun) is sold in Osaka — the scene of the Moritomo scandal.

Needless to say, both Abe and Finance Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) Taro Aso had almost nothing to do with Fukuda’s alleged sexual harassment. Although it is explicitly Fukuda’s personal problem, some media and opposition parties have claimed that Abe, or at least Aso, should take responsibility for the scandal, urging Aso to step down as finance minister.

Most people would agree that these scandals are much less important political issues than normal diplomatic and economic matters, such as the problem of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs or the prospect of a trade war between United States and China, and its implications for Japan. It would be better for the media and the Diet to discuss these matters rather than the unimportant scandals.

It is clearly not a healthy situation that most mass media outlets focus on the scandals rather than important national political issues, but it is also to some extent inevitable because private media outlets focus on popular topics that earn high audience ratings. That phenomenon is not unique to Japan. I would say it is a common situation in most democratic countries where freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed.

The situation in the Diet, however, should be different. As elected representatives of the people, Diet members should be debating substantial issues rather than just digging up and hurling accusations concerning personal scandals. Their position requires them to work to maximize national interests rather than to pursue their own gains.

But, in fact, members of the opposition parties in particular concentrate on scandals for the purpose of attacking the administration in power. According to the Diet Act, members of the Diet are basically prohibited from asking general questions orally — instead, they are supposed to ask oral questions on topics related to the theme of the committee. If this rule is strictly followed, Diet members usually cannot ask questions about scandals since those scandals have nothing to do with the policy topics that they are supposed to discuss in each committee. General questions must be asked in document form, not orally. It seems, however, that nobody cares about upholding this rule.

What should we do to avoid being trapped in this hopeless situation? One answer would be to elect politicians who would place priority on national and social interests rather than using scandals to attack the government in power for their own gains. That, however, may be too much to ask for.

If we cannot expect to have ideal lawmakers in the Diet, the second option would be to change the Diet system. It is said that the Diet has too much power compared with the parliaments of other countries. For example, the prime minister is required to attend the Diet for far more days than in many other advanced countries, according to the research by Japan Akademeia, a private-sector group consisting of scholars and business leaders. The prime minister has to attend the Diet nearly 100 days a year, while a prime minister in Britain, for example, attends parliament for about 40 days annually. In Germany, the corresponding figure is just around 10 days. In the United States, the president hardly attends the Congress since the executive branch is directly elected by citizens.

However, it would be difficult to change the Diet system since that would require amending some relevant laws and, possibly the Constitution, to weaken the power of the Diet. Obviously, the members of the Diet would not take steps that would reduce its influence over the government.

Then the best way to change the terrible situation in the Diet would be to beef up the policymaking power of political parties. They should have in-house think tanks with the ability to draft policies on laws, the budget and international agreements. If they could keep the government in check by concentrating on policies, they would not need to focus so much on scandals during Diet deliberations. They should be making counter-proposals to government policies, instead of merely opposing them.

In Japan, there are no laws regulating the establishment of political parties. This means that reforms of political parties can proceed without having to amend relevant laws.

Ichiro Asahina is the chief executive officer of the Tokyo-based think tank Aoyama Shachu Corp.