Kōno Yōhei, who served as Speaker of the House of Representatives longer than anyone in Japan’s constitutional history (2003–09), laments the irresponsible attitude of the country’s political leadership and looks to the past for hints on how to overcome the gridlock currently crippling the Diet.
What Japanese politics today lacks more than anything else is humility.
Watching the budget committee and other government bodies in session, one often comes across Diet members and cabinet ministers striking proud and defiant poses, becoming sulky and irritable whenever someone has the temerity to disagree with them. For people who seldom have much to say, these politicians certainly like to talk big. But all this huffing and strutting communicates nothing to the Japanese people. Our politicians need to work harder to get their feelings and opinions across with humility. Prime Minister Kan in particular needs to do more to convey an impression of sincerity. Everyone knows when a politician is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Once this happens, the politician forfeits the trust of the public.
Overcoming a “Twisted Diet”: Lessons from the Obuchi Cabinet
Admittedly, the political situation is not easy at the moment, with different parties holding majorities in the upper and lower houses of the Diet (a situation known as a “twisted Diet” in Japanese). But this is not the first time for politicians to face this problem. In the United States, for example, it is quite common for different parties to have control of the White House and Congress. Twisted Diets are nothing new in Japan either. Perhaps the most challenging example in recent years came during Obuchi Keizō’s time as prime minister, from July 1998 to April 2000.
Obuchi took a much more humble and conciliatory approach than Kan is demonstrating today. He took the time to listen to the views of the opposition and worked hard to bring about a compromise. Even when the extraordinary 143rd Session of the Diet, called in 1998 to pass a series of financial recovery measures, voted down the government’s proposals and swallowed the opposition’s counterproposals whole, Obuchi resisted the temptation to insist on his own position and made compromise his number-one priority. He was keenly aware that the government needed to demonstrate humility in order to reach an agreement in the Diet, and literally put his life on the line to achieve it. The lifespan of the LDP-Liberal Party-Kōmeito coalition as a whole was undoubtedly curtailed by the sacrifices made. Tragically, all this work ultimately resulted in Obuchi’s untimely passing. I wish members of the Diet today would cast their minds back to that time and reflect on the remarkable amount of legislation the Obuchi cabinet managed to pass in spite of the twisted Diet.
I am convinced that the LDP’s astute management of the Diet was one of the chief factors behind the success of LDP-led politics for so many years. The party leadership was prepared to sacrifice government proposals and use opposition ideas to overcome an impasse. No doubt there were advantages and disadvantages to this approach, but without the majority party being flexible and open to the ideas of others—and having a sense of responsibility—it would not have been possible at all to keep the Diet moving. This sense of responsibility is what today’s political leadership is lacking.
At the moment, the government is fishing for support wherever it can be found to make up for its lack of a majority in the upper house. This is the height of stupidity. The most important factor in getting legislation through the Diet is debate in the House of Representatives, where Kan’s party has an overwhelming majority. It is in the House of Representatives, where it has a numerical advantage, that the government needs to listen to ideas from the opposition. Only after the government and opposition parties have thrashed things out in that legislative body, and reached a consensus on points they may have in common, should the government think of passing legislation on to the upper house. If the government were to take this approach, it would surely find the way open to compromise and progress. Instead, the government uses its majority to force legislation through the House of Representatives and then hands it dismissively to the House of Councillors for the stamp of approval. Nothing will ever get passed in this way—not even legislation that might otherwise have been approved.
Dangers of a “Grand Coalition”
Things seem to have settled down a little recently, but I remain concerned by all the facile talk of a “grand coalition” between the government and opposition parties. Admittedly, this would be one way to resolve the problems presented by a twisted Diet, but at present, with party politics in decline and politicians unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions, a grand coalition would be extremely dangerous. If it were to occur, the opposition would consist of a handful of Communists and a few other assorted malcontents. The government would be able to do whatever it wished—including changing the constitution if it felt so inclined. I hope that the young politicians and commentators who are advocating a grand coalition as a sort of magic cure for all of Japan’s woes will wake up and remember the mistakes that have been made in similar circumstances in the past. (Based on an interview conducted on June 29, 2011.)
Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1937. After graduating from Waseda University, worked in business before entering politics. Following his first election to the House of Representatives in 1967, he was returned at 14 consecutive elections. Served as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister for Foreign Affairs, before becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives (2003–09). Current positions include President of the Japan Association of Athletics Federations and specially appointed professor at Waseda University.