2022 House of Councillors elections: Is it all right if the "government of calmness" continues as it does?
Nobuo Sasaki／Professor Emeritus of Chuo University and scholar of public administration
Field of specialization: Public administration and local government autonomy
◆ With the ruling parties having won a signal victory, the situation remains unchanged
On July 10, the House of Councillors (HoC) elections ended. Not so long after last autumn's House of Representatives (HoR) elections, with no clear points at issue, they were held as if they were simply asking whether the people placed confidence in the Kishida administration. The result was that the ruling parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito, won a decisive victory while the opposition parties suffered a complete defeat. Just before the voting day, an abnormal situation occurred in which former prime minister Shinzo Abe fell to a killer's bullet during his roadside speech and died. A total of 545 persons (including 181 women), the largest number ever, ran for the recent HoC elections over 125 seats: half of the House's seats, which was 124, and one to fill a vacancy.
As shown in the chart, the result was 63 seats for LDP, 13 for Komeito, 17 for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), 12 for Nippon Ishin (NI), 4 for the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), 5 for the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), 3 for Reiwa Shinsengumi, 1 for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), 1 for the NHK Party, and 6 for others. The LDP gained 28 seats among the 32 single-seat districts (one seat each up for election), which is larger than the 22 seats gained in the previous election. There are some changes in the composition of opposition forces, including an increase in the number of seats gained by Ishin, but the opposition parties were generally in bad shape as typified by the lack of key opposition forces and too many small parties. The number of women elected was 35, the largest ever. This means that the Kishida administration formed last autumn won two consecutive victories in the large HoR and HoC elections, apparently making its stable management possible.
Nonetheless, as the living environment becomes increasingly harsh due to factors such as rising prices, lack of electricity, and the spread of COVID-19 and there are a mountain of difficult problems in Japan and abroad, including revision of the Constitution and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, nobody knows when abnormalities will occur. There is no guarantee that this government without reform, or the "government of calmness," will continue forever as it does now. The author does not agree with easygoing reports by mass media, which say that with no major elections scheduled for the next three years, the Kishida administration "has obtained the golden three years." In politics, nobody can tell what may happen next. The situation is not so optimistic. If he fails to bring satisfactory results, the prime minister might even be replaced in one year.
Source: JIJI.COM (July 11, 2022)
In any event, if members not subject to election are included, the ruling parties, LDP and Komeito, now have 146 seats, including 70 seats not subject to election, far exceeding the majority in the HoC. One possible view is that together with pro-revision parties such as NI, they obtained two-thirds of all seats, the number required to propose revision of the Constitution.
But that does not lead directly to the argument that the Constitution should be revised. A look at opinion polls alone indicates that there are not so many people who are in favor of immediate revision of the Constitution. While there are loud calls for constitutional revision among LDP and other conservative politicians, the awareness of people about the need to revise the Constitution immediately is not so keen. There is a large gap between the intentions of such politicians and the way people feel in daily life. We must be careful about reports by mass media that argue that Mr. Abe's intentions should be taken over and the maneuvering of public opinion by those attempting to lead the election results to immediate constitutional revision.
◆ Trap in which we are caught by low voter turnout
In the following section, looking back upon the recent HoC elections, the author would like to indicate several important points. First, the voter turnout still remained low, at 52.05%. During the 75 years after the war, as the number of HoR elections, local elections, and HoC elections grew, they have seen the voter turnout continue to fall, sometimes going below 50%. This means that the "abstention rate" has risen each year. It is strange that there is no argument that analyzes in-depth what this means. Incidentally, what is an election? Needless to say, an election is a ritual by which, under the system of parliamentary democracy, people elect representatives who are involved in public decision-making on their behalf (Figure). Votes cast by eligible voters, the "voice of the people," turns into the "voice of heaven" when they go through those plain old ballot boxes. Elected persons are given a "license" showing that people place confidence in them as their representatives and a Diet member's badge. They are qualified as decision makers in public affairs related to state administration, including legislation, budgets, and treaties. That is what an election is all about.
If the voter turnout continues to go below 50%, this system will be shaken. If the number of persons who do not vote approaches 50%, it follows that representatives are chosen without the will of half of the people put in their hands. This does not mean that full political legitimacy is given to the representatives elected. Don't you think there is a problem with the election-is-everything principle trusted by so many people? In the "Opinion" column of the Asahi Shimbun on June 25, 2022, a political scientist asserted, "I believe that the reason today's democracy malfunctions is that people have fallen into the election-is-everything principle. Elections are not the only method of democracy. Representatives can be elected by drawing. If you look back upon history, ancient Greeks thought that in fact, drawing was democratic while elections were aristocratic." And he added with a serious tone, "How about changing the HoC to the House of Citizens whose members are elected by drawing?"
It is true that the election system requires a candidate to meet three requirementsーconstituency base, funding capabilities, and name recognitionーif one wishes to stand as such. If one runs for election of the HoC in the national constituency of proportional representation, one must pay ¥6 million for the deposit alone. If one intends to electioneer as others do, it is difficult to do so unless one can procure a fund of ¥50~60 million and nearly 20 electioneering agents. This is reality. Inevitably, ordinary people are discouraged from running for election, and only well-known, wealthy people such as singers, TV personalities, athletes, and former governors can run for election. It can be said that at this stage, ordinary people as well as experts and other right persons for the job are denied the possibility of being elected. In the recent elections, a former marathon runner was running in various places every day while waving her hand, but it all looked so strange. What is it she wanted to do?
Today, in Japan, the national and local governments are using a total of ¥200 trillion for public services such as welfare, education, roads, and national defense and for debt repayment each year. More than half of the amount, or over ¥100 trillion, is accounted for by the national government's budget. We should think hard as to whether it is appropriate to leave decisions on this budget to the current election system alone. Isn't there a way to leave them to a policy voting system?
◆ What is the HoC? In fact, its roles are unclear
The election system is not the only thing that must be pointed out when analyzing the recent HoC elections. They have a deeper structural problem. It is whether the HoC is useful. When the author carefully listened to candidates speak in town, they talked about countermeasures against rising prices, social security, and increasing defense budgets, but none of them mentioned how financial resources could be found. All candidates talked about expanding public services. They said that all funds would be procured by borrowing money. That is so irresponsible. The author practically did not hear any candidates assert that they had run for election because they had certain things to do in the HoC or the HoC had certain roles to play.
Many candidates seem to feel that it is all right if they can obtain a stable position with a term of six years. Some say that they ran for election to the HoC because they had been defeated in the previous HoR elections. After they are elected, what are these people going to do in the HoC with 248 seats? After all, won't they end up being complacent, overly satisfied in the fact that they were elected as a Diet member or end up treating their time in the HoC as if all they have to do is the same thing as in the HoR--like some kind of boring rerun? Wearing their mask as a political leader, it's the idea of being a Diet member that they find attractive. Up to now, the HoC has been referred to as the "Seat of Common Sense," but if that was true, it doesn't seem to be anymore.
The area of Japan is almost the same as that of America's California, but even in the vast United States, the Senate, the American counterpart of the HoC, consists of 100 seats. Two senators are elected from each of the 50 states irrespective of the size of states. California is the second largest and most populous state, and even if so, only two senators can be elected. How about Japan compared to this? With the same area as that of California, Japan has as many as 248 members of the HoC, the Japanese counterpart of the Senate. The HoR has 465 members. That's too many. We need to look straight at the fact that Japan is a country that abounds in Diet members.
Even though there are differences between the conditions in Japan and the U.S., are 713 members of the HoR and the HoC combined needed in a small country like Japan? A large amount of money is also needed. The author's calculations show that some ¥100 million is spent on one Diet member annually if direct and indirect expenses are combined. As this much money is spent, we need to think hard about what problems we expect them to solve.
The parliamentary systems in the world are divided into two major categories: unicameral systems and bicameral systems. Roughly 60% of countries have a unicameral system while the other 40% has a bicameral one. In many cases, countries like Japan, which adopt a two-chamber system, give the upper house (HoC), which widely reflects the different opinions of various classes of people on national government, the function of checking the arbitrary actions of the lower house (House of Commons or Representatives).
There are three types of upper houses (see the figure). The first type is based on aristocracy like the one in the United Kingdom. The second type represents states based on a federal system as in Germany and the U.S. The third type is like the one in France, which lets representatives of regions and local governments serve as its member as well.
The HoC in Japan today does not fall into any of these types, and both HoR and the HoC are considered bodies representing the people and use similar election systems. That is why some people run for election to the HoC if they are defeated in the HoR elections. Japan's bicameral system is probably aimed at full deliberation, and the HoC ends up doing the same thing as the HoR except for when a twisted Diet with ruling parties dominant in one of the two houses and opposition parties dominant in the other. In other words, the HoC's uniqueness is practically nowhere to be seen. This is why some people argue that the HoC should be abolished.
A member of the HoC close to the author says, "When I go to the Diet, I can't help but think that the thing Diet members consider most important is what will happen to their position in the next election. That, and the fact that members of the HoR don't give any thought to the significance of the HoC at all. The only time they think about it is when it comes time to pass a bill and they need a majority of the votes."
◆ Future reforms of the HoC: Six points at issue
However, the author does not support the abolishment of the HoC or a shift to the unicameral system. As indicated by major countries, the reason is that the bicameral system can display its strengths if it is used effectively. Based on this way of thinking, in order to change the HoC to a legislative organ useful to the people, the author would like to propose pushing the reforms specified below (see the figure).
1. Clarify the nature of the House: This makes it clear whether the HoC is the house of reconsideration or the bastion of regions.
2. This is most important, and in order to outgrow its position as the house of boring reruns, the HoC needs to have three kinds of independence:
①Being representatives of regions
②Taking charge mainly of (C) policy assessment and the settlement of accounts and (A) review of the policy-making process (PDCA cycle)
③Holding highly specialized, in-depth discussions from a long-term perspective in ways that are different from those of the HoR
3. Select as candidates experts and regional representatives that are completely different from those selected for single-member constituencies in HoR elections
4. Allow members, aside from their affiliation with a party, to vote on bills in the deliberation process freely without being bound by party resolutions
5. Lower the age of candidates eligible for election from the current 30 years old to 25 years old
6. Put the House in session throughout the year instead of letting both Houses begin and close their sessions simultaneously
In addition to the foregoing, though not shown in the figure, it is necessary to introduce a quota system to increase the number of female members and experts and encourage ordinary people to be elected so that seats are not unevenly distributed to particular organizations such as industry associations and labor unions. Furthermore, it is necessary to give greater weight to the national constituency of proportional representation by electing members of the HoC from larger areas (states) such as Tohoku, Kansai, and Kyushu rather than fragmented election districts based on the 47 prefectures.
◆ The HoC should outgrow its position as the house of boring reruns!
As discussed above, the HoC faces a mountain of points it is going to have to be clever to reform in order to outgrow its position as the house of boring reruns. Sooner or later we should change it to a house capable of displaying characteristics different from those of the HoR, which should respond swiftly to daily changes as a legislative organ that decides budgets in public fields, which account for one-third of national life, and frameworks for legislation, taxation, and national defense. The author seeks major reforms to the HoC so that it can play three roles: (1) long-term outlook, (2) settlement of accounts, policy assessment, and revision, and (3) reflecting the opinions of local governments, which are responsible for half of the ¥200 trillion's worth of administrative activities in Japan, on national government.
This type of Diet reform, which directly involves the position of Diet members, cannot be implemented if they are left to them. Leaving such reforms to Diet members is equivalent to a robber being unwilling to prepare a rope on his/her own. How about establishing a third-party organ consisting of external experts and so forth in the Diet and begin discussion immediately?
The members of the HoC have a term of six years. They should think hard about the meaning of this and make the most of the House's strong points. Unlike the restless HoR, which urges its members to always prepare for an election and whose members' term of office practically expires in two and half years, the HoC should change itself into a house capable of reviewing visions and policies from medium- to long-term points of view and reflecting the popular opinions of regions on national government. To that end, we should seriously consider reforming the process of recruiting candidates suitable for that purpose. The sense of political parties which rely on the temporary name recognition of TV personalities and such, and collect them as candidates is questionable.
At any rate, the necessity of Diet reforms became clearer through the recent HoC elections. Isn't it more beneficiary to the people to give priority to discussing Diet reforms rather than revision of the Constitution--a topic widely talked about? The author thinks so.
The elections ended, but we must remember what Jean-Jacques Rousseau, known for his The Social Contract, said: "The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is only free during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved." We should think hard as to what we should do so that we will not be enslaved in the future.
Nobuo Sasaki／Professor Emeritus of Chuo University and a doctor of laws
Field of specialization: public administration and local government autonomy
Professor Emeritus Sasaki was born in 1948. He completed the political science course at Waseda University Graduate School. He obtained a Ph.D. in law from Keio University. He worked at the Planning and Deliberation Office and other departments of the Tokyo metropolitan government for sixteen years. Later, in 1989, he became a professor at Seigakuin University, and from 1994 to 2018, he was a professor at Chuo University, where he taught public administration and local government autonomy. In 2018, he became a professor emeritus at the university. During this interval, he also worked as a guest researcher at America's University of California, Los Angeles, as a lecturer at Keio, Meiji, Nihon, and Saitama Universities, and as a guest professor at Tohoku Fukushi University. Furthermore, he served as a member of the government's Local Government System Research Council and a special advisor to the Osaka municipal and prefectural governments and is a member of the Science Council of Japan (political science).
The posts currently held include professor emeritus at Chuo University, guest professor at the Graduate School of Project Design, special advisor to the Osaka municipal and prefectural governments, strategy advisor to the Sakai municipal government, and chairman of the board of directors at the Japan Nation Building Research Institute.
His major writings include Ima Koso Datsu-Tokyo!(Now is the Time to Leave Tokyo!), Heibonsha Shinsho, May 2021; Kono Kuni no Tatamikata (How to Reform This Country), Shincho Shinsho; Aratana "Kuni no Katachi" (The New "Shape of Japan"), Kadokawa Shinsho; Oiru Tokyo (Aging Tokyo), Kadokawa Shinsho; Nihon Gyoseigaku (Public Administration in Japan), Gakuyo Shobo; Gendai Chiho Jichi (Modern Local Government Autonomy), Gakuyo Shobo; Chiho Giin no Gyakushu (The Revenge of Local Assembly Members), Kodansha Shinsho; Tochiji (The Tokyo Governor), Chuko Shinsho; and Tocho (The Tokyo Government Office), Iwanami Shinsho.
He also makes television appearances, writes commentary in newspapers and books, and gives lectures across the country.
Dr. Sasaki Nobuo Institute of Government and Management's website: