Will Japan’s government disappear?

A Supreme Court ruling in Japan could shake up the political landscape of the country.

Although a Supreme Court ruling has effectively cast doubt on the legality of current members of the National Diet, it's been decided that having an illegal Diet is better than none at all [EPA]
Although a Supreme Court ruling has effectively cast doubt on the legality of current members of the National Diet, it's been decided that having an illegal Diet is better than none at all [EPA]

A pop quiz: Name the country in East Asia where national elections are illegal. In fact, holding a national election would be unconstitutional.

The answer: Japan.

Not the answer one would expect. However, on October 17, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled unconstitutional the current electoral districts used to assign seats in the House of Councillors. This complements the Supreme Court ruling of March 2010, which found the district boundaries of the House of Representatives to be also unconstitutional.

In both instances, the Court ruled that the elections selecting the current membership of the Diet were unconstitutional. This means that every single member of Japan’s current parliament is occupying his or her seat illegally. In both cases, however, the Court wisely decided that what’s done is done, and that having no Diet was worse than having an illegal one.

Creating a new Diet

Having ruled that the electoral districts of both Houses of the Diet are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has set the stage for a titanic contest of wills in between Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko and his Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition alliance of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito.

The DPJ controls the House of Representatives; the LDP/New Komeito alliance, together with other parties, the House of Councillors. In order to pass bills that change the boundaries of the electoral districts so as to conform to the Supreme Court’s guidelines, the three parties have to work together. Otherwise, a reform bill will be voted down in either one of the two Houses.

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Unfortunately, the three parties have different agendas in terms of elections.

The LDP wants the current maps to remain largely unchanged. After all, the maps the Supreme Court has found so offensive are what kept the LDP in power for 50 years. By giving voters in lightly populated areas a huge weighting in terms of their ability to elect Diet members, the LDP created a system of mass vote buying, where government contracts and subsidies could be handed out to favoured groups in the lightly populated areas. In gratitude these groups would vote for the LDP’s candidates. As the lightly populated areas were over-represented, the LDP always ended up being the majority party.

A more equitable system, where the vote of any citizen is counted equally, would end this patron-client system. There is simply not enough money in the budget to buy the allegiance of a majority of the voters, if all the votes are counted the same way.

From the DPJ’s founding, the party’s ultimate dream has always been a more equitable system. The core membership of the DPJ, which is currently in control of the party, has always wanted to end the transfers of the country’s wealth from its most productive, ie, tax-paying, areas to its least viable, ie, tax-consuming, areas. A fundamental belief is that these transfers of wealth are ultimate causes of Japan’s decline as an economic power, as government investment went to the areas where it would have the smallest multiplier effect and subsidies and protections went to industries Japan should not be in.

As for the New Komeito, it wants a reform that will give minor parties such as itself a chance to survive. With winner-take-all districts, the minor parties have nearly zero chance of winning district seats. They survive only thanks to the party list elections, where seats are apportioned based on how many votes a party received over a wide geographical area.

Jockeying for seats

The LDP has offered a reform bill for the House of Representatives districts which makes five tiny changes to the system. These changes are so minor it is almost as if the LDP is thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court. The bill of course disregards the DPJ’s wish for a fundamentally fairer system, nation-wide.

With the its popularity ratings half those of the LDP’s and with only a razor-thin majority in the House of Representative, the DPJ has almost no leverage to realise its dream of a more equitable electoral system. 

One would expect that the DPJ, in its weakened position, would offer a compromise, a reform bill with a few more changes to the map, making elections a little more equitable than the LDP proposal, but far from what the DPJ had dreamed of achieving.

One would be wrong in this assumption. In a move to drive the LDP leadership crazy, the DPJ has offered a reform bill with exactly the same changes to the district map as are in the LDP’s bill – with the caveat that these changes would have to be accompanied with a cut in the number of party list seats from the current 180 to 100. 

Enter the New Komeito, all of whose seats are party list seats – and whose voters, on orders from their party leadership, vote for LDP candidates in the district elections. A cut in the number of party list seats is like a hand to the New Komeito’s throat.

“It is a dangerous situation, with a party with everything to gain trying to squeeze a party with nothing to lose.”

The LDP is thus frustrated: It’s been offered a bill which has the changes it wants in the electoral map, but with changes to the party list election unacceptable to its close ally the New Komeito.


How long can the cat-and-mouse game with go on between the DPJ and LDP over rendering elections constitutional? The next House of Councillors election must be held in July of 2013; the next House of Representatives by the end of August 2013. In theory, the DPJ-led Cabinet, even with DPJ public opinion poll numbers in the cellar, could limp its way through the first half of next year.

However – and this is where the clash of wills comes in – the government of Japan is about to run out of money. Half of the government’s budget is funded through revenues. Half is financed through the issuance of government bonds. Unfortunately for the prime minister and the DPJ, the right to issue such bonds is not automatic. A law must be passed – ie, a bill must pass through both House of the Diet – permitting the issuance of new debt.

Some stop gap plans have been floated, such paying government bills with short-term paper. But these plans fly in the face of the whole point of issuing bonds: to put off into the future paying for what you want today. With short-term paper, the future would be now.

The LDP wants a House of Representatives election as soon as possible in order to capitalise on its current popularity. The prime minister and his party want to avoid an early election but need the LDP’s votes in the Diet to prevent a government shutdown. The DPJ also wants to hang on to power long enough to compile and pass one more national budget this December, leaving its stamp upon the nation.

It is a dangerous situation, with a party with everything to gain (the LDP) trying to squeeze a party with nothing to lose (the DPJ). Unless the two find common ground, the Japanese government faces in the short run an inability to pay its bills, and by September next year an electoral black hole into which Japan’s constitutional government could simply disappear.  

Michael Cucek is author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society and a Tokyo-based Research Associate of the MIT Centre for International Studies.

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