Last week, news broke that Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Yoshimasa Hayashi will try using the next general election to trade his House of Councilors seat for one in the House of Representatives.
Hayashi is not the first in Japanese politics to make the switch from the Upper House to Lower House, but many might be wondering why.
The move by Hayashi is worthy of attention for two reasons. First, he has had his eyes set on the prime ministership for over a decade; thus, this latest development suggests that he is positioning himself for the post-Suga LDP. Second, it offers a window into Japan’s political power dynamics, both in the government and inside the ruling LDP.
There are several reasons why it might seem crazy for a politician to trade the relative stability of the Upper House for the chaos of the Lower House. After all, Upper House terms are a guaranteed six years long, while Lower House members only get a maximum of four — assuming the house is not dissolved sooner. There is also the fact that Upper House members only have to compete against 241 other members for attention and committee seats, compared to the Lower House that has a bustling 465.
Yet, despite these circumstances, one almost never hears about a Lower House member trying to move to the Upper House, but movement the opposite direction has plenty of precedent.
The short explanation here is that politicians make the leap from the Upper House to the Lower House to elevate themselves in the power hierarchy. The Lower House has certain authorities that make it more important in the overall power dynamics of Japanese government. For example, the Lower House can overturn an Upper House decision by a two-thirds vote and it is responsible for formulating the national budget.
Because of this, Japan’s political parties can live with a simple majority in the Upper House but scratch and claw for the two-thirds supermajority in the Lower House. That means that politicians who can comfortably win a seat in the Lower House become more valuable to a political party; and the more valuable they become, the more political influence they can wield.
The LDP breaks down this power hierarchy further. The strongest LDP politicians are those who can confidently hold onto a single district seat in the Lower House as compared to a proportional representation seat. Why? Because if they win a district seat, then the proportional billet gets opened up for someone else. As such, it should come as no surprise that every LDP faction head holds a single district Lower House seat.
Meanwhile, the Upper House does not command the same institutional respect within the party. Lower House members tend to be career politicians who can handle the grind of more frequent and irregular election cycles. The Upper House, however, is a haven for folks who are new to the political world. Some of the more notable ones of recent years include former pro wrestler Antonio Inoki, the mustachioed former Ground Self Defense Force Col. Masahisa Sato and former Olympic speed skater Seiko Hashimoto.
Exacerbating the status gap is that one of the primary objectives for LDP Lower House members is to stump for Upper House candidates. What that means is that LDP Lower House politicians not only have to worry about their own elections, but those of their Upper House peers, as well.
In the famously hierarchical LDP, these distinctions create institutional biases, meaning the Upper House does not tend to carry the same political gravitas in the LDP’s policy circles. Thus, to be taken more seriously, one must accept the risks, challenges and obligations that come with being in the House of Representatives to elevate his or herself inside the party.
There is one more important factor at play: the prime ministership. The precedent for prime ministers coming from the Lower House is absolute: there has never been an Upper House prime minister in the postwar era. This is mainly because of an unwritten rule that since the prime minister can dissolve the Lower House, he or she should be a member of it. Given that all prime ministers since 1947 have come from the Lower House, any politician that has aspirations for Japan’s top job better get a seat in the House of Representatives.
Hayashi’s case illustrates these dynamics well. Like many LDP heavyweights, Hayashi comes from a political dynasty, though unlike some of his peers, he did not wait for his father to retire so he could inherit his seat. Instead, Hayashi won a spot in the Upper House in 1995 while his father continued serving in the Lower House until 2003.
Instead of making the switch in the early 2000s when his father retired, Hayashi decided to stay in his seat, testing how high he could climb in the LDP as an Upper House member. In 2012, he ran for the party presidency against the likes of Shinzo Abe and Shigeru Ishiba, expressing his desire to become the first Upper House member to become prime minister.
However, Hayashi has stalled in his upward mobility within the LDP. Despite being seen as a steady hand as a Cabinet minister, he has hit a ceiling. He is stuck in the shadow of Fumio Kishida, his faction leader, and he has no viable chance of convincing his peers to break the 70-plus years of precedent in supporting an Upper House prime minister. If Hayashi is going to make moves, he has to play by the LDP’s rules.
Thus, Hayashi now has one eye on a Lower House seat and perhaps the other fixed on the prime ministership in a post-Suga LDP. If he succeeds in his bid this next election, he will certainly be one to watch in the coming years. In the meantime, his gambit offers yet another case study in the unique dynamics of Japanese politics.
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.
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