Japan Table of Contents

The Legislature

Article 41 of the constitution describes the National Diet, or national legislature, as "the highest organ of state power" and "the sole law-making organ of the State". This statement is in forceful contrast to the Meiji Constitution, which described the emperor as the one who exercised legislative power with the consent of the Diet. The Diet's responsibilities include not only the making of laws but also the approval of the annual national budget that the government submits and the ratification of treaties. It can also initiate draft constitutional amendments, which, if approved, must be presented to the people in a referendum. The Diet may conduct "investigations in relation to government" (Article 62). The prime minister must be designated by Diet resolution, establishing the principle of legislative supremacy over executive government agencies (Article 67). The government can also be dissolved by the Diet if it passes a motion of no confidence introduced by fifty members of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber. Government officials, including the prime minister and cabinet members, are required to appear before Diet investigative committees and answer inquiries. The Diet also has the power to impeach judges convicted of criminal or irregular conduct.

Japan's legislature is bicameral. Both the upper house, the House of Councillors, and the lower house, the House of Representatives, are elective bodies. The constitution's Article 14 declares that "peers and peerages shall not be recognized." Upon the enactment of the 1947 constitution, the old House of Peers was abolished. Members of the two new houses are elected by universal adult suffrage, and secrecy of the ballot is guaranteed (Article 15). The term of the House of Representatives is four years. It may be dissolved earlier, however, if the prime minister or members of the House of Representatives decide to hold a general election before the expiration of that term (Article 7). Multiple representatives are elected from 130 constituencies based theoretically on population. In 1993 the House of Representatives had 511 members.

Members of the House of Councillors have six-year terms. One half of these terms expire every three years. There are two types of constituencies in the upper house: prefectural constituencies, for the forty-seven prefectures and districts, represented by thirteen councillors, apportioned according to the district populations; and a national "proportional representation" constituency, represented by 127 councillors, which yields a total of 140 in 1992. The proportional representation system, introduced in 1982, was the first major electoral reform under the postwar constitution. Instead of choosing national constituency candidates as individuals, as had previously been the case, voters cast ballots for parties. Individual councillors, listed officially by the parties before the election, are selected on the basis of the parties' proportions of the total national constituency vote. The system was introduced to reduce the excessive money spent by candidates for the national constituencies. Critics charged, however, that this new system benefited the two largest parties, the LDP and the Japan Socialist Party (Nihon Shakaito; after 1991 known as the Social Democratic Party of Japan), which in fact had sponsored the reform.

The House of Representatives has the greater power of the two contemporary houses, in contrast to the prewar system in which the two houses had equal status. According to Article 59, a bill that is approved by the House of Representatives but turned down by the House of Councillors returns to the House of Representatives. If the latter passes the bill with a two-thirds or higher majority on this second ballot, the bill becomes law. However, three important exceptions to the principle exist; covering the approval of the budget, adoption of treaties with foreign countries, and the selection of the prime minister. In all three cases, if the upper and lower houses have a disagreement that is not resolved by a joint committee of the two houses, then after a lapse of thirty days "the decision of the House of Representatives shall be the decision of the Diet" (Articles 60, 61, and 67). Budgeting is an important annual political function, setting both taxes and the allowable expenditures of all segments of the central government, and the impotence of the upper house has been demonstrated on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, the House of Councillors, with its fixed terms, cannot be dissolved by the prime minister. In times of emergency, the cabinet may convene the House of Councillors rather than the House of Representatives (Article 54).

In the July 23, 1989, election for half the members of the House of Councillors, the LDP lost its majority. It won only thirty-six of the seats contested in the prefectural and national constituencies, while the opposition parties together won ninety, the largest opposition party, the Japan Socialist Party, won fortysix. This result gave an admittedly unstable coalition of opposition groups the opportunity to use the limited powers of the upper house to delay or frustrate initiatives taken in the LDP-dominated lower house. On August 9, 1989, for the first time in forty-one years, the two houses nominated two different candidates for prime minister--Kaifu Toshiki of the LDP and Doi Takako of the Japan Socialist Party. Although Kaifu was finally chosen because of the principle of lower house supremacy, the events showed how opposition control of the upper house could complicate the political process. In March 1990, the upper house rejected a supplementary budget bill for fiscal year (FY) 1989 that had been proposed by the lower house. Although the bill was eventually approved despite rejection by the upper house, the wrangling caused some minor inconvenience to the country's more than 1 million national civil servants whose monthly salary payments were delayed. The more serious upheaval, which might have occurred had there been a real deadlock or a potential shift in fiscal policies brought about by the opposition parties, was avoided.

The LDP won 223 seats in the July 1993 House of Representatives election, thirty-three seats short of the simple majority required to control the 511-member lower house. With postelection adjustments and realignments, the Japan New Party head, Hosokawa Morihiro, was able to gain the support of the Shinseito, the Sakigake, the Komeito, the Social Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Socialist Party, and United Social Democratic Party to form a minority government. This coalition of small conservative parties that had broken off from the LDP and socialist-based opposition parties differed on many issues but shared the common objective of passing political reform legislation. In early 1994, it remained to be seen how long and how effectively Prime Minister Hosokawa would be able to hold the coalition together.

The Cabinet and Ministries
Local Government
The Electoral System
The Judicial System

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress