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Japan’s “New Politics”: Tactics in the “Divided Diet”

by Sheila A. Smith
January 12, 2012

Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (front R) and his cabinet members prepare to pose for a photo in Tokyo September 2, 2011. Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (front R) and his cabinet members prepare to pose for a photo in Tokyo September 2, 2011. (Toru Hanai/Courtesy Reuters)

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is about to reshuffle his Cabinet, and my friends here in DC are looking at me in amazement, asking “not again?!” Prime Minister Noda’s reshuffle brings some new faces into the leadership, and removes a few that were less than exemplary at their job.

The real story is less about these faces, and more about the frequency with which Japan’s top policymakers change. Parliaments operate differently than the U.S. presidential system, and so the reconstitution of Japan’s Cabinet is always more sudden than the four-year transitions of presidential administrations here in Washington.

The mechanics of Japan’s leadership transitions matter to the management of U.S.-Japan relations. Leadership transitions seem to come fast and furious in Tokyo, and the media is full of stories of political rivalries, personal and party. I’m sure no one in Washington these days will be surprised to hear that much of the politics of the moment in Japan have little to do with policy debate, and everything to do with who might emerge on top in the next election.

Yet it is important that we understand the habits that have developed to accompany Japan’s move away from single party dominance, what I am calling Japan’s “new politics.” Since I get asked so many questions about what is going on over there, I will share some of them, and hope that others will join in the conversation to explore the texture of political change today as it relates to governance challenges.

The habits of Japan’s parliament, specifically the prolific use of Upper House censure motions to embarrass and weaken governments, is the back story to Prime Minister Noda’s decision to reshuffle tomorrow.

Q: “What is a censure motion, and do Cabinet members have to resign when they’re censured?”

On December 9, 2011, opposition members in Japan’s Upper House censured two Cabinet members, the minister of defense, Yasuo Ichikawa, and the minister in charge of consumer affairs and food safety, Kenji Yamaoka. The censure motion in the Upper House is not binding, and thus cannot force the resignation of a member of the Cabinet. Yet it suggests that he (or she—none have been women to date) is no longer welcome in the chamber, and that the government therefore cannot effectively present its ideas and argue for legislation in the Upper House. In other words, it limits the ability of the ruling party to govern, and therefore pressures the prime minister to remove the individual minister from the Cabinet.

Similarly, the Cabinet of former prime minister Naoto Kan was deeply wounded by censure motions against then chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, and then minister of land, infrastructure, and transport, Sumio Mabuchi, on November 26-27, 2010, for their roles in the Japanese response to the Chinese fishing trawler incident in the waters off of the Senkaku islands. The confrontation with China, and the handling of the crisis, was condemned by Japan’s opposition parties in the Upper House, and their censure forced the hand of an already besieged prime minister to weaken his Cabinet by replacing two of his key decisionmakers.

Censure motions thus have become the weapon of choice for opposition parties in the Upper House to undermine and embarrass Cabinets. The more powerful no-confidence vote in the Lower House, of course, can remove a prime minister from office, but the Upper House has no such power. Yet, the censure motion today in Japan’s parliamentary battles is deployed frequently and without consideration of what it effectively does to weaken Japan’s government.

Before we point the fingers too fully in the direction of today’s opposition parties, it is useful to remember that this weapon was used liberally by the DPJ when it was in opposition. The first Cabinet resignation as a result of Upper House censure was under an LDP government in 1998, when then director-general of the Japan Defense Agency Fukushiro Nukaga resigned over a widespread procurement scandal. That set the precedent—or expectation—that censure could in fact be a successful tactic for opposition control over Cabinet choices.

The DPJ then used it with greater impact, in the waning years of LDP rule when the opposition for the first time passed a censure motion against a sitting prime minister, Takeo Fukuda in 2008. A vote of confidence in Fukuda was passed in the Lower House, demonstrating his legitimacy as Japan’s leader, but the Upper House censure was an embarrassment coming as it did just prior to his hosting of the G8 Summit. They did it again against his successor, Prime Minister Taro Aso in 2009, but Aso managed to get his Lower House vote of confidence passed in the morning before the Upper House could hold its vote.

This acrimony between the ruling and opposition parties may now be acceptable in Japan’s “divided Diet,” where the lack of a majority in the Upper House makes this slash and burn approach feasible. Yet it is worth asking as Japan struggles with unprecedented economic, social, and strategic challenges, what does this say about the role of Japan’s parliamentarians in building and strengthening good governance practices? Are they helping or hindering governance?

Outside of Japan, the fear is that Prime Minister Noda’s decision to change his line-up only four months into his tenure signals a weakening of his government, and the opposition’s tactic of trying to force him to reshuffle only signals to the rest of the world Japan’s continued inability to focus its political energy on solving the nation’s challenges.

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