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One House Better Than Two?

The Bane of Bicameralism

Japan’s current premier Yukio Hatoyama is now exposing his lack of leadership. For example, he has not yet formed his official opinion about the relocation destination of the Futenma U.S. Air Station: within Okinawa islands? Out of the islands? Or, out of Japanese territory altogether?

The White House has gotten frustrated, and manifested its displeasure at the Hatoyama government. This is only one instance among many. Hatoyama projects indecision about not only security issues but also finance, welfare, and so on. Does such indecisiveness result from his personal characteristics? It is as good a guess as any. However, a more institutional explanation can be furnished. That is bicameralism, or to be exact, the strong Upper House of Japan.

Cause For Coalition

In Aug 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led by Hatoyama won the Lower House election by a landslide, and has retained a comfortable majority in this house (307/480 seats). Under the governing system of postwar Japan, the Lower House has the ultimate authority to elect a certain Diet member as prime minister. Consequently, in Sep 2009, Hatoyama won the prime premiership by a majority of votes in this house.

Properly speaking, Hatoyama ought to exercise strong leadership through a power base supported by 307 seats at the Lower House. In fact, it's just the contrary. He had no choice but to form a ruling coalition with SDP (Social Democratic Party) and PNP (People’s New Party); he is often swayed by their opinions and attitudes on some key issues. Why? It is because DPJ holds mere 114 seats in the Upper House (242 seats total). The Hatoyama government can not cling to majority in this house without the coalition with SDP and PNP, which hold 5 seats each.

Hatoyama’s indecisiveness about the Futenma issue stems from this coalition framework. He may want to relocate the Futenma Air Station within Okinawa islands, or may think that the relocation out of Okinawa is unrealizable. However, SDP claims the relocation out of Okinawa or out of Japanese territory, and threatens secession from the coalition in order to influence Hatoyama’s decision. For the resolution of this security issue, DPJ must counteract SDP’s influence by winning the next Upper House election this summer. However, at this stage we are not sure if DPJ will win. Conversely, in the case of DPJ’s defeat, Hatoyama will shoulder its responsibility. Depending on the result of the election, he will be forced to resign his post as premier. The existence of the Upper House is that important in Japan’s politics.

Why Is the Upper House So Important?

In many democracies with a parliamentary system, with a few exceptions including Australia, a government is not heavily influenced by an upper house. A British prime minister or German chancellor is always supported by a majority of the British House of Commons or the German Bundestag. Just as long as there is a solid support base in a lower house, a premier can stably manage the government.

On the other hand, an upper house has so little power that a government needs not very often to give consideration to the climate of this house. At least, under a parliamentary system, it is seldom that a premier resigns to take responsibility for the result of an upper house election.

However, conditions are different in Japan, which also adopts a parliamentary system. In this country, the Upper House has relatively strong power in comparison with the case of the U.K. or Germany. Above all things, Article 59 of the Constitution of Japan deserves special mention. It stipulates that a “bill which is passed by the Lower House, and upon which the Upper House makes a decision different from that of the Lower House, becomes a law when passed a second time by the Lower House by a majority of two-thirds or more of the members present.” [Italics added]

At first glance, this provision can be interpreted to ensure the superiority of the Lower House to the Upper House, because the Lower House has the right to revote a bill at issue between both houses. However, a second look confirms that this provision puts the Upper House almost on a level with the Lower House. This right of the Lower House to revote is conditioned on a two-thirds majority vote.

In reality, this right is not exercisable unless the ruling party wins a crushingly outright victory in a Lower House election. Moreover, the Lower House partially adopts the proportional representation system, which is unfavorable to major parties. Given the fact, all the more the condition of a two-thirds majority vote is seen as too difficult. In effect, the government can not enact a bill at all without the consent of the Upper House. This house virtually has a veto on all sorts of bills or legislations. It is why the Upper House of Japan is strong.

Many past premiers were agonized by the power of the Upper House. To cite a recent case, Sosuke Uno (in office Jun 1989 – Aug 1989) and Ryutaro Hashimoto (in office Jan 1996 – Jul 1998) resigned to take responsibility for the defeat of the Upper House election. More recent Shinzo Abe (in office Sep 2006 – Sep 2007) and Yasuo Fukuda (in office Sep 2007 – Sep 2008) also resigned in a year because they got tired of the political impasse caused by the loss of a majority in the Upper House. And now, one of the important factors in Hatoyama’s lack of leadership is the fact that DPJ is several seats short of a majority in the Upper House.

Why Is the Upper House So Problematic?

Unlike a presidential system, in a parliamentary system, a lower house election is publicly recognized as a democratically important opportunity to choose a government and its leader. If a certain party wins a majority in a lower house election, this party is institutionally qualified to stay in power for several years. The political stability caused by the close relationship between a lower house and a government is one of the advantages of a parliamentary system. However, in Japan, even a certain party leader democratically chosen as premier through a Lower House election can not hold political leadership unless this party has a majority in the Upper House. This institutional structure weakens the aforesaid meaning of a Lower House election, that is, the choice of government.

In recent years, the conundrum caused by Japan’s bicameralism has begun to be taken more seriously. In the postwar period, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s monopoly on power continued for many years. That is what we call the 1955 system. There was no party with the ability to hold the reins of government except LDP. Lower House elections have virtually functioned as not opportunity to choose a government but mere “confidence vote” on the LDP rule. However, in the 1990s, in parallel with the bankruptcy of traditional LDP politics, the necessity of regime change on the premise of a two-party system was strongly emphasized.

As a result, DPJ was created as a countervailing force against LDP in the late-nineties. Such a new political trend began to bring a new democratic meaning to Lower House elections --- that is, choice of government. Consequently, the strong power of the Upper House has become more serious issue in question. For example, in his book published in 2005, Yukio Hatoyama said that “the point that election results of the Upper House have a considerable influence upon the handling of government is a serious flaw in the governing system provided by the current Constitution.”

Originally, the current Upper House is substantially the successor to the prewar House of Peers. The Allied Powers, which occupied Japan following WWII, aimed at the transition from bicameralism to unicameralism because of the abolishment of peerage, as part of the postwar reforms in Japan. However, most of Japan’s politicians and bureaucrats at that time hung back from the rapid change of political institutions, and tried to maintain the bicameral system in any way. Then, as a product of compromise between the Allies and Japan, the renewed Upper House composed of popularly-elected members was established in 1947. Because this new house was prepared so hastily, its meaning of existence or functional implication was not much elaborated. Such carelessness is now producing a structural problem of the bicameral system, in parallel with the breakdown of the 1955 system.

Could Two Houses Be Better Than One?

In the first place, why do we need two houses? What is the raison d'etre of bicameralism? As they say, a bicameral system is classified into the following three models: “aristocratic,” “federal” and “deliberative.” The British House of Lords shows a typical example of the first “aristocratic” model. This house --- composed of hereditary peers, life peers and lords spiritual --- represents this country’s traditional aristocracy, although the British government is recently working on the sweeping reform of this house. At any rate, in this model of bicameralism, the upper house is necessary for the representation of aristocratic elements.

The second “federal” model can be found in federations such as the United States or Germany. In this type, in contrast to lower houses representing all the people of the country, upper houses are generally expected to equally reflect the interest of each state or region within the country. For example, in the U.S. Senate, two senators represent each state, regardless of population. In the case of the German Bundesrat, its members are not elected by popular vote, but appointed by each state cabinet. After all, in this model of bicameralism, the upper house is necessary for the sustainment of the federal system.

The third “deliberative” model is used to justify the existence of upper houses in some countries without aristocracy or federalism, such as Japan or France. Why do such countries need an upper house? The reason may be deliberation. Standard textbooks for constitutional law or political science tell that the bicameral system functions as effective restraint on majority rule. There is no guarantee that a majority party in one house does not establish tyranny based on majoritarianism. If another house is constituted, “check and balances” between both houses function effectively; political decision processes become more deliberative.

However, does such a deliberative process need the strong power of an upper house as shown in the case of Japan? Just as long as an upper house has only the right to postpone a congressional decision such as the British House of Lords, such “check and balances” may be enough maintained. Additionally, the actual significance of deliberation is the expression of socially diverse opinions in order to urge a majority to qualify its opinion. To that end, what we need may be not a strong upper house, but a type of forum which respects differences of opinion and promotes a variety of dialogue, regardless of existing party affiliations.

Two Reform Plans

To conclude, this article wants to tentatively propose two reform plans on Japan’s bicameralism. The first “soft” proposal is the reduction of the Upper House’s power. In my opinion, a bill at issue between both houses must be reconsidered by the Lower House for a given period of time, and must be finally passed by not a two-thirds but a simple majority vote in the Lower House. This reform may drastically reduce the power of the Upper House, and strengthen the democratic meaning of Lower House elections. Additionally, through this reform, the Upper House can possess the new significance of existence, that is, the “delay device” for the Diet’s decision process.

The second “hard” proposal is the abolishment of the Upper House, that is, the transition from bicameralism to unicameralism. Instead, the internal reform of the Lower House must be carried out. For example, the complication and diversification of the deliberative process in the Lower House is one practical idea. Particularly, a bill related to minority rights or basic national policies must be always submitted to multiple deliberative bodies, and must not be decided prematurely.

Realistically speaking, the second proposal is seen as impracticable. The focus of attention to come may be the first plan. At any rate, the important thing is that we must secure the significance of a Lower House election as democratic opportunity to choose a government and its leader. If the Upper House continues to exist, it must not be the crucial factor spoiling the result of a Lower House election. At the outset of the 21st century, we the Japanese people can finally get out of the 1955 system where LDP was only one choice in practice. As it were, Japan is now going to attain “normal democracy” at the same level as other advanced democracies. The radical reform of bicameralism is indispensable for making Japan’s democracy move forward.

Takaaki OHTA is a research associate specializing in political and constitutional theory at Waseda University, Tokyo. He has recently published ‘Fairness versus Freedom: Constitutional Implications of Internet Electioneering for Japan,’ Social Science Japan Journal vol.11 no.1 (2008), and ‘Constitutionalism, Cyberspace and Exits,’ Journal of Political Science and Sociology vol.9 (2008). He can be reached by email at ohta@toki.waseda.jp.


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