PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Another politician caused controversy last week for heckling during Diet testimony.
Democratic Party for the People President Yuichiro Tamaki was addressing a plenary session of the Lower House and explaining his desire to legally recognize women who want to retain their own surnames after marriage. That’s when a female Diet member allegedly shouted that those women shouldn’t be getting married in the first place. Naturally, this received some media attention, but for outside observers what might be more surprising than the audacity of the remark is just how common heckling is in the Diet.
It seems that every legislative body has its own peculiarities. Whether it’s Ted Cruz reading Dr. Seuss to filibuster in the U.S. Senate or Lloyd Russell-Moyle picking up the ceremonial mace in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, there are behaviors that may seem odd to outside observers but are more understandable and perhaps even unsurprising within those legislatures themselves.
The Diet is no exception, and on the occasion of this most recent heckling incident, it’s useful to share some of the more extraordinary actions one might observe this coming year. Understanding these eccentricities provides a piece of the puzzle that is Japanese politics, especially when controversial legislation is in the picture.
This is something one might see in any number of parliaments throughout the world, but in Japan, it may seem especially abnormal since the society often brands itself as harmonious and structured.
In the Diet, heckling is a time-honored practice that some use recklessly and emotionally — usually resulting in the sorts of blowback we saw last week — but is really meant to be wielded as a political tool.
Heckling and jeering is typically a junior politician’s game played in each house of the Diet. In both plenary sessions and committee meetings, these less-tenured members will sling corrective statements, pointed questions and yes, even insults, during another’s testimony.
Indeed, sitting through my first few Diet sessions some years ago, I was amazed at how rowdy it all seemed as the prime minister and each of the party presidents delivered their speeches over the hecklers.
The strategic hecklers engage in this behavior for two reasons. First, they try to throw the speakers off their game, especially to get them to say something that will play poorly in the media or need to be retracted later.
Second, they do it to make a name for themselves. The notoriety is not meant for the public — hecklers are hard to identify since they are not microphoned and the cameras are not on them — rather, it is gained among fellow politicians. One must understand that for every Shinjiro Koizumi who enjoys instant prestige from his/her lineage, there are 50 nobodies in the Diet seeking to make their mark. For some silver-tongued politicians, the heckling tactic has worked.
Despite its potential political benefits, heckling has increasingly become a liability. The tendency for this practice to devolve into simple bullying means Diet members are more likely to find themselves denounced in the news or on social media than climbing a party hierarchy for their statements.
The risk will not stop politicians from engaging in the practice, however, so no one should be surprised the next time another politician finds him or herself in hot water for slinging untoward remarks in Diet chambers.
The picket strategy
Whenever controversial legislation hits decision points in the Diet, there will typically be some theatrics starting on the day of committee voting. They come in the form of obstructionary measures taken by opposition members of the committee, and they range from vocal protests to something that resembles professional wrestling both in its exaggerated physicality and the foregone outcome.
Known as the “picket” strategy, members of a committee who oppose passing a bill but do not have the numbers to stop it will take a series of high visibility actions. They may try to block the entrance of the committee chambers. Sometimes they hold signs and chant over the voice of the committee chair. In more desperate situations, they will swarm the chairperson and try to take his/her microphone so as to stall the vote and the reading of the results. They may also try to steal the chairperson’s seal so the bill cannot be stamped. At the same time, junior politicians on the supporting side will form a circle around the chairperson, pushing opposing members away. This often results in jostling, with some opposition Diet members even attempting to leap over the huddle.
It is important to know that all of this is theater. No Diet member is authorized to obstruct passage of a bill by physical means, and if the ruling coalition wanted to censure anyone for attempting to do so, it could. Everyone involved in these sorts of scuffles already knows that the bill will pass the committee.
So if the outcome is already decided, why do it? For opposition politicians, a scuffle in the Diet — even a staged one — is instant media fodder, often earning coverage in both domestic and foreign news outlets. It increases issue attention for controversial bills and can influence public opinion.
For junior politicians on the supporting side, responding to scuffles is a good way to demonstrate party loyalty and to make a name for oneself. The act of being a good soldier can earn some recognition for those seeking patronage.
At the same time, there is little reason for higher tenured Diet members to join the fray, so if you do see one of these scuffles happening, don’t expect the political heavyweights to do much but remain in their seats until the show ends. As for censuring opposition members who partake in these theatrics, the ruling party avoids keeping controversial issues alive in the Diet any longer than they have to be, so these incidents usually flame out quickly after they occur.
When a bill passes committee, it must then go to the plenary session for voting, and that is when the odd practice of gyūho, or “ox walking,” comes into play. While an opposition party can try to kill a bill by extending the time allotted to committees until after a Diet session expires, once it goes to vote, there is nothing formal that can be done except to vote against it or to abstain. Absent other options, the opposition may employ the practice of ox walking to demonstrate its protest for the bill.
The practice centers on the requirement for Diet members to deliver their vote by hand. Typically, they form a line and proceed one by one to the head of the chamber. For those seeking to protest, they may opt to inch forward, shuffling their feet as slowly and as closely together as possible. The operative notion is that as long as they maintain forward movement, they are not obstructing the vote, but they can take hours to get from their seat to the voting box.
Can this practice work? In theory, yes. If Diet members leave the chamber before their vote is accepted (for example, to use the restroom), they forfeit their right to vote. If the voting period passes midnight, the whole vote may be determined null. The same applies if the Diet session expires before voting is concluded.
The problem is that none of that ever happens in practice. The head of each chamber has the ability to declare a member’s actions obstructionist and dismiss them from the process. Thus, the benefit of ox walking only comes from the court of public opinion. Ox walking always garners media attention, and if the chamber head dismisses an ox-walking Diet member, the opposition can use that as additional ammunition to say that the ruling party failed to recognize opposition votes and rammed a bill through the Diet undemocratically.
There are still other practices that may seem foreign to outside observers. There are the dramatic apologies where a Diet member bows deeply and promises that something will never happen again as if that somehow exonerates all past transgressions. There is the odd practice of only letting press into the opening remarks of closed-door meetings but then letting them listen through the door and report on what they overheard. The list goes on.
It is important to remember that understanding Japanese politics, as with many things in Japanese society, is often an exercise of scratching beneath the surface to discover the true meaning. As you observe what unfolds in the Diet this year, recognize that even these seemingly extraordinary behaviors have an element of form and precedent to them and are all meant as messages to specific audiences, even you.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.