Montesquieu vs. Bagehot Two visions of parliamentarism in Japan

Yuri Kono (translated by Egas Moniz Bandeira)

Introduction: Heisei democracy and the 1955 System

The political structure of contemporary Japan is that of a representative democracy. But what kind of representative democracy is it? It is different from the presidential system of the United States. That is to say, a strict separation of powers is not really enshrined in the Constitution of Japan, which determines the superiority of the House of Representatives (Shilgiin WW/ii). Although the Constitution provides for the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review as a court of last resort, the Court is known to nearly always respect the positions of the government when “highly political questions” are involved.1 Furthermore, Japan’s political system is also different from a “consensus” democracy, although this point is a bit more controversial. Contemporary Japan differs from the type of representative democracy as is often to be seen in European countries, with an electoral system centered around proportional representation and in which important political decisions tend to be taken in consensus between the major political parties.2

But what is contemporary Japan’s democracy then? Certainly, the central position of the National Diet within the political system reminds of the status of the English parliament, of which, since the eighteenth century, it has been commented that it “can do everything except for turning men into women and women into men.”3 Contemporary Japan comes close to a majoritarian democracy or the model which is called the “Westminster Model.” The electoral system is in principle that of single-member districts. The political party which detains the majority in the parliament elects the prime minister, and the prime minister concomitantly serves as the head of the executive organs. In this system, in which legislative organs and executive organs are "merged,” the powers of the Japanese prime minister tend to be rather strong.4

Certainly, some caveats are necessary. First, there is a divergence between model and reality. The Westminster Model assumes that at every election, the composition of the parliament largely changes, and that govermnent is frequently handed over. However, in contemporary Japan, since 1955, political power has only been handed over twice, and the one-party hegemony of the Liberal Democratic Party (Jiyu Minshuto § ¿J continues. Lacking the formation of a strong opposition party, the system of two large parties originally expected by

DOI: 10.4324/9781003158608 the Westminster Model has not been realized. Is the Westminster Model appropriate as a form for representative democracy? Questions such as why strong opposition parties do not arise in Japan even though the Westminster Model is used are very interesting topics, but are not discussed in this chapter.

As a second caveat, another element is to be considered which has been spared out of the considerations above: the existence of a monarch. In Japan, there is a hereditary monarch who is different from the prime minister. In the case that the monarch has different political preferences from the prime minister, the powers of the prime minister could be seen to be restricted. However, as in the United Kingdom, there is the principle that the monarch “reigns but does not rule.” His (or her) powers are limited to a ceremonial role, and, as a matter of principle, he (or she) does not possess substantial deciding powers. Being a part of governance without practical effects, the monarch fully plays the “dignified part.” This point becomes more important in practice in the Senate (Sangiin #11^) and in local government. Although, as has been described, the Constitution accords a position of superiority to the House of Representatives, there are accordingly high obstacles for draft bills to pass the Senate. In the sense that managing the government becomes rather difficult when the Senate and the House of Representatives are occupied by different factions, the Japanese Senate (the second house) is an important exception when considering the “Westminsterization” of Japan. Furthermore, local government is also an important exception. Japan does not apply a federal system. However, the Constitution promulgated in 1946 professes the ideal of “local autonomy” and confers upon local governments extensive discretionary powers. If the local governments are resolutely determined not to comply with the decisions of the central government, the measures that the central government can take are rather limited.

Third, there have been historical changes. The transformation of the Japanese political system into the Westminster Model was a rather recent phenomenon. Certainly, there is scope for interpreting provisions of the 1946 Constitution such as those determining the superiority of the House of Representatives (First House) as fundamentally foreseeing a parliamentary system. However, before the Liberal Democratic Party was temporarily sent into the opposition in 1993, circumstances were different in Japan even though the text of the Constitution as such did not change at all. In conclusion, it was the epoch-making reform of the electoral system and consolidation of the legal system concerning the Cabinet in 1993 which advanced the Westminsterization of Japanese politics.5 The parliamentarism after 1993, which conforms to the Westminster Model, has taken on the era name “Heisei Democracy,”6 whereas parliamentarism before that is sometimes called the “1955 System.”

For this chapter, this third point is important, i.e., the question of the “1955 System” being another type ofparliamentarism in Japan alongside the Westminster Model. In 1955, the Liberal Party (Jiyuto §[ll')'i) and the Democratic Party (Minshuto ) - two conservative parties -merged, and the Socialist Party accomplished its unification. The Communist Party relinquished armed revolution and adopted the policy to act as a parliamentary party. Later, the situation that conservative parties continuously secured the majority of the House of Representatives (First House), but on the other hand could never win the two-thirds majority of the seats necessary for constitutional amendments, in fact persisted until 1993. The system whereby constitutional amendments by the conservative wing - for which two-thirds of the seats are necessary - and a takeover of government control by the left wing - requiring a simple majority of the seats -were concomitantly precluded is sometimes called “One-and-a-half major party system” (ichi to ni-bun-no-ichi daiseitosei — ¿ —).7

While the conservative parties did not hide their nostalgia for the pre-1945 system by publicly professing policies such as amending the Constitution and remilitarization, the left-wing parties did not hide their sympathy for the “Eastern Bloc” by showing enmity toward capitalism. The differences in the ideological standpoints of the two sides were all too clear, and in fact, on the surface, the two camps seemed to be fiercely opposed. However, that could also be said to have been nothing more than a “quarrel.” What took place against the background of such a superficial relationship of hostility was in reality a politics of consensus (dakyd S tzl/j). In this sense, this “1955 System” was not so dissimilar to the con-sociational democracies of Europe. The electoral system of multimember districts (in one district, several candidates were elected) promoted the diversification of parties. Furthermore, this generated parties within parties, called "factions“ (habatsu MH), within the strongest party, the Liberal Democratic Party. In other words, the Liberal Democratic Party was a coalition government of multiple factions. The prime ministers’ powers were comparatively weak, and their terms of office were not very long. Politics was fundamentally a coordination between such factions, and the parliament, in its turn, was a place for coordination with opposition parties (yato if 'yt'). The structure of the parliament, which had short sessions and needed to digest complicated agendas, made the veto rights held by such opposition parties more important than the actual number of seats. Contrary to the superficial ideological differences, in practice, politics was made with strong consideration for the opposition parties. “The winner takes it all” did not work.

What is also interesting is that such a structure of the separation of powers in the political system was represented and understood as a political system characterized by a US-style “separation of the three powers,” even though in practice it was not. In Japan, there is no president, and the executive branch is not really independent from the legislative branch. Moreover, the judgments of the judicial branch basically do not depart from those of the government. This notwithstanding, in standard Japanese textbooks of compulsory education, explanations as “Japan adopts the separation of three powers” are frequently to be seen.8 The confusion of terminology here is an interesting example of how the people who live in a certain political system name its division of powers, but, as this chapter will show, this "misuse” itself reflects the reception history of parliamentarism in Japan.

This chapter tentatively names the understanding of parliamentarism with a division of powers as represented by the "1955 System” as the "Montesquieu Model.” Further, it will tentatively name the understanding of integrated and combined “Westminsterian” parliamentarism as represented by the “Heisei democracy” as the “Bagehot Model,” showing that a tense relationship between the two models was visible in the beginnings of the reception of parliamentarism in modern Japan. Of course, it is ineluctable that the discussion, after undergoing several abstractions, will be rough-hewn, but I think that this is an effective method in order not to consider the need for parliamentarism in modern Japan as merely a story of “success” and “limitations.”

Prior to this, I would like to first give a rough ovendew of the political system in the Japanese archipelago before it took over a “parliament.” In reality, this is because the political structure created at that time prescribed the pattern of how parliamentarism was taken over in modern Japan.

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