Photo/IllutrationDemonstrators protest the government in front of the prime minister’s office in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district after the ordinary Diet session was closed on June 26. (Kazutaka Eguchi)

With the end of the regular Diet session, political attention is shifting toward the Upper House election, which has been scheduled for July 21 after a two-week official campaign period that starts July 4.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not dissolved the Lower House for simultaneous elections of both houses, choosing not to make the move he was rumored to be considering.

While both the ruling and opposition parties are already gearing up for the political battle, it is important to look back on the just-ended Diet session and assess the current state of democracy in this nation.


In mid-January, immediately before the ordinary Diet session was convened, the Diet affairs chiefs of the ruling and opposition parties agreed to ensure that the Diet would engage in exhaustive debate on policy issues as “the highest organ of state power” and properly perform its function of monitoring and checking the administration.

They shared concerns about how the Diet failed to perform its watchdog role during the regular session last year, when the government was rocked by a series of political scandals including the Finance Ministry’s falsification of official documents.

But the 150-day session only underscored the miserable state of the legislature, where the dominant ruling camp and the government colluded to limit public access to vital information and restricted opportunities for healthy policy debate.

The functional failure of the Diet, where elected representatives of the people should debate important issues, is tantamount to a crisis of the nation’s democracy itself. But neither the Abe administration nor the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, is showing any concern about the situation.

The Budget Committees of both houses, the Diet bodies that should play the leading role in keeping watch on the government, did not hold a single meeting after the Diet passed the government-drafted budget in April.

As a result, the number of Budget Committee meetings held during this regular Diet session was the lowest in the past 10 years.

Diet rules mandate the Budget Committees to convene a session when one-third or more of their respective members demand it. But Genjiro Kaneko, an LDP lawmaker who serves as chairman of the Upper House Budget Committee, ignored an opposition request for a committee meeting based on the rule.

This is just another sign of the Abe administration’s proclivity to take its accountability lightly and avoid serious debate.

In 2017, the administration even ignored an opposition request for an extraordinary Diet session based on a constitutional provision.

The Constitution stipulates, “The Cabinet, in the exercise of executive power, shall be collectively responsible to the Diet.”

This provision defines the relationship between the Cabinet and the Diet.

It is difficult to claim that Abe has been fulfilling his duty as prime minister to explain his policies at the Diet and sincerely respond to questions from Diet members.

When a recent Financial Services Agency panel’s report that said elderly couples would need at least 20 million yen ($185,400) in savings to make ends meet over a 30-year period drew public criticism, the administration refused to accept it and claimed the report did not officially exist.

It refused to answer most of the questions about the report at the Diet. The administration also rejected an opposition request for the early publication of the government’s latest five-year review of the long-term fiscal prospects for pension benefits by the end of the Diet session.

There is a mountain of issues concerning domestic politics and diplomacy that are crying out for in-depth and nuanced debate at the Diet. There has been no progress toward clearing the facts about the serious political scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, two school operators directly or indirectly linked to Abe.

No sufficient effort has been made, either, to identify problems behind faulty statistics compiled by the labor ministry.

The Abe administration was fixated on avoiding debate on sensitive issues during this Diet session because it wanted to ensure that no serious political blunders occur before the Upper House poll. Because of this attitude, the administration should be held primarily responsible for the lack of meaningful debate during the Diet session.


Instead of tackling sticky policy issues head-on at the Diet, the Abe administration has applied itself to drawing public attention to events to welcome a new imperial era and high-profile diplomacy.

As for the first-ever abdication by an emperor in the history of Japan’s constitutional government, Abe held a news conference to talk about his thoughts in selecting the new era name, Reiwa.

Repeating the phrase “the dawning of a new era,” Abe successfully created a festive mood among the public called “Reiwa Fever” by capitalizing on the 10 consecutive national holidays his government arranged for the imperial succession.

Abe has also injected a lot of political capital and energy into meetings with foreign leaders. He held meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump in both April and May to underscore his close personal ties with the American leader.

In particular, he staged a series of photo ops to show off his good chemistry with Trump when the president visited Japan in late May as the first guest of the nation since the new emperor’s accession to the throne, including watching sumo bouts together.

Another good opportunity for Abe to stage high-profile diplomatic performances comes on June 28, when the two-day Group of 20 summit starts in Osaka.

Abe will preside over the conference, which brings together the leaders of 20 major countries, including Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Abe must see the summit as a superb opportunity to demonstrate his diplomatic clout before the start of the official campaign period for the Upper House poll.

How much actual benefit his diplomatic theatricals have produced for Japan, however, is open to question.

There is no room for optimism about how Japan’s trade talks with the United States will turn out. Tokyo’s talks with Moscow to settle the long-standing territorial dispute over islands off Hokkaido are going nowhere fast.

Meanwhile, Abe has made major foreign policy shifts without explaining them in detail to the public. He has decided to focus Japan’s territorial negotiations with Russia on the return of two of the four disputed islands to Japan and offered to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without any precondition.

These important foreign policy changes without substantial explanations to the people reflect the administration’s tendency to avoid debate on sensitive policy issues.


In the late stage of the Diet session, senior administration officials made remarks suggesting the possibility of a dissolution of the Lower House for simultaneous elections of the two chambers. Abe himself uttered words apparently aimed at fueling speculation about a snap election.

These comments appear to have been aimed at putting political pressure on opposition parties ill-prepared for a snap poll to blunt their attack on the administration at the Diet.

In a June 26 news conference to mark the end of the ordinary Diet session, Abe referred to the lack of debate at the Commissions on the Constitution of both houses during the past year and said one key question for voters as they cast their ballots is whether they should choose a party not even ready to debate constitutional issues or a party firmly committed to debate on the Constitution.

In an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted before this year’s Constitution Day on May 3, however, the largest number of respondents cited the “economy and employment” as the policy topic they would give importance to in voting, followed by “social security and welfare.”

The Constitution was the ninth among the 10 options.

While eschewing debate on the policy issues of greatest public concern, Abe is criticizing opposition parties with regard only to their stance toward constitutional amendments. This is the height of political opportunism.

During the six years and six months of Abe’s leadership, the relationship between the administrative and legislative branches of the government has lost the healthy tension vital for a sound democracy.

This has led to endemic arrogance and lax discipline within the administration. The Upper House election will be an opportunity for Japanese voters to make choices that help restore health to this nation’s democracy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 27