Japan : after 21 July

7 Août 2013

On 21 July, the Japanese voted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) 65 of the 121 seats in the Upper House of the National Diet. The LDP now controls both houses, which will prevent a “Twisted Parliament” for now. The way is eased for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his reform proposals. Analysis.

Crédit Photo -- AFLO | nipponnews.net
Crédit Photo -- AFLO | nipponnews.net
With the 11 seats won by the LDP Coalition Party New Komeito, the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now has a two-thirds majority in the Upper House, which means that the major opposition Party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) can no longer bloc its bills in the Upper House. Until 21 July 2013 the DPJ held the majority within in the Upper House, yet with the control of now 135 seats in the 242-seat Upper chamber, Abe can theoretically stay in office until the next general election, which need not be held until 2016. This eases Abe’s way to fight for some of his more controversial reform propositions – as long as he manages to retain the support within both houses.

“Twisted Parliament”

The term “Twisted Parliament” refers to the situation, where two different parties control the Upper and Lower House. The “Twisted Parliament” has been been haunting Abe ever since the LDP's 2007 Upper House loss during his first term as Premier Minister. “Twisted Parliaments” are in essence legislative deadlocks caused by the governing party lacking the necessary support for a bill in one of the two houses of the National Diet (国会, kokkai). For a bill to become law, both houses must approve of it by at least a simple majority, unless the bill is concerns changing the constitution, in the case of which a two-third majority in both houses is required. If now the opposition party has the majority in one of the houses, it can bloc any bill it dislikes, thereby spoiling reform initiatives of the governing party. With the “Twisted Parliament” removed, Abe can, therefore, start focussing on pushing through his domestic and foreign political reform agenda.


Abe ‘s economic reforms referred to “Abenomics” are aiming to revive the ailing Japanese economy. “Abenomics” is based on the “three arrows” of monetary policy, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms. In monetary policy, Abe is targeting the devaluation of the Yen arguing that falling prices discourage people from buying as they keep waiting for better cheaper deals. Abe then proposed to the central bank of Japan to double the inflation target of the Yen, which he seeks to combine with massive stimulus packages hoping to encourage the public to spend more money. However, some analysts argue that if Abe’s measures work and the prices rise, so do the interests rates, which would severely affect Japan, whose national gross debt stood amounts to roughly 240% of its GDP. In order to combat the debt, the Abe government has been considering increasing the sales taxes by April 2014 from 5 to 8% - yet, that would most certainly harm domestic demand, which Abe is trying to stimulate with the financial stimulus packages. Abe has also promised structural reforms and, for example, joined talks focussing on the establishment of a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Free Trade agreement that could make Asia the new economic hub and offers massive market potential to Japanese businesses. However, there are also factions that are against such a partnership – especially farmers who fear that they will lose competitiveness, which would then create an additional burden for the debt-laden government. Lately, Abe has been increasingly criticised for his Abenomics, which though initially very popular, have so far failed to convince in their attempts to revive the stagnant economy.

Foreign policy

Abe has proposed to review Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, according to which a two-third majority of both houses is required before a public referendum can be held. If Abe should be successful with this proposal, the way to review the infamous Article 9 would be eased. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution holds that Japan is not allowed a military, while also renouncing the Japanese peoples’ right to war as a means of conflict solution in foreign politics. Japan under Abe has been more self-assertive as exemplified in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island conflict, while reviewing Article 9 would also fall in line with Abe’s revisionist attitude towards the Second World War. Abe has antagonised the international media through statements such as “the definition of what constitutes an 'invasion' has yet to be established in academia or in the international community.” In questioning the role of Japan as aggressor that caused the Pacific War, Abe is trying to change the way history is being written in Japan to make it fit his vision for Japan. Yet, by questioning the “war guilt mentality” that has so far been used to justify Japan’s military confinement, Abe is walking on a tightrope between countries viewing such an action as the beginning of a new wave of ultranationalism like South Korea or China and those countries who would like a stronger Japan to counter the rise of Chinese influence in the region.

Japan, the United Nations and a ‘democratic’ constitution

Abe currently argues in favour of reviewing Article 9 pointing towards the fact that Japan is excluded from participating in collective self-defence initiatives, like Peacekeeping Missions of the United Nations. Conversely, Japan has also high ambitions within the United Nations, as it would certainly like to join the ranks of the P5 in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In that context, being allowed to participate in peace missions might be a first step for Japan towards its long-term goal – though China is likely to oppose any application for UNSC membership. Article 9 is likely to continue to be a vulnerable spot especially because there is one good argument speaking in favour of revising the constitution: the Japanese did not write it. Japan was never given the choice on whether or not it wanted to renounce its military as its 1947 constitution, which is largely still in place today, was imposed by US occupation officials upon Japan. The Japanese constitution is therefore a paradox in that while it is formally-speaking rather democratic, it was introduced into Japan by undemocratic means.

The challenge for Abe: maintaining political stability

Japan had 31 Prime ministers since 1947 – whereas the United Kingdom only had 14 different Prime Ministers. Alone in the 2000s, Japan had 10 different Prime Ministers – most of them stayed for less than a year except for 2001-6 under Junichiro Koizumi. The frequent change of Prime Ministers is closely related to the division of power within the political system, more specifically the Lower House. If the Lower House passes a non-confidence motion, either it must be dissolved or the whole Cabinet is collectively forced to resign. The Prime Minister’s continuation in office is therefore dependant on him managing to retain support in the Lower House.

Retaining support can be a difficult balancing act because major parties like the LDP are still factionalised – though there seems to be a general consensus among scholars that Japanese politics move from the personal level to the party level. Furthermore, elitism within the legislative contributes to the persistence of factionalism because factions are often centre on previous Prime Ministers, which form part of a complex web of family connections with many MPs being children or grandchildren of former Kokkai delegates. What Abe now needs to manage is to keep his party united behind him – especially in the Lower House, while convincing sceptics within and abroad of his “peaceful intentions” when reviewing the constitution.