Japan's Political Dysfunction

Is America partially to blame for Naoto Kan’s becoming the fifth Japanese prime minister to resign in the same number of years? At the risk of joining the “blame America first” crowd, let me say that a case can be made that the political institutions created by the American occupation laid the seeds for Japan’s current dysfunction.

The parliament on Tuesday elected former Finance Minister Yoshiko Noda the country’s new prime minister to replace Kan, the sixth leader in five years. Noda faces daunting problems. But some stem from the country’s constitution, which was written for the country by Americans in the wake of World War II. And some provisions in the document are as much to blame for Japan’s political gridlock as any supposed character or leadership flaws in Naoto Kan or any of the other recent premiers.

The roots go back to 1947 when the American proconsul in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, unhappy with drafts of a new constitution presented by the Japanese, decided to take matters into his own hands. He gathered 20 or so members of his staff and told them they constituted a constitutional convention. They had a week to come up with a satisfactory charter.

One might have thought that a group of Americans would have more or less copied the US Constitution, but the decision had already been made to retain the monarchy. So they had to fashion a parliamentary form of government. But they grafted on to it an American-style upper chamber, called the House of Councillors.

Japan’s prewar Diet had an upper chamber called the House of Peers filled by aristocrats and appointed plutocrats. It was fairly easy for the American drafters to purge the aristocrats and plutocrats and fill the house with elected members. Not so easy was to find the right balance of powers of the second chamber with the supposedly “more powerful” lower house.

In fact, the Americans made the upper chamber too powerful. It is the most powerful second chamber of any parliamentary democracy. It is much closer to the US Senate than, say, the British House of Lords. With very few exceptions, a bill defeated in the House of Councillors stays defeated, not delayed or amended or otherwise massaged – defeated.

The constitution makers didn’t spend a lot of time fussing over the balance between the two new legislative bodies during their short time as constitution drafters They were obsessed with finding the right language to define the role of the emperor. After all, it was MacArthur’s dissatisfaction with the wording supplied by the Japanese legislators that caused him to scrap the proposed charters and write a new one.

When, about a month after becoming prime minister, Kan’s party lost control of the upper house, his government was doomed. He might just as well have resigned then and there. The opposition could use its control to block virtually any initiative that the government might undertake, even threatening to kill a bill allowing the government to issue deficit-covering bonds to keep the government solvent.

The constitution does have a provision allowing the lower house to override a decision of the other body with a two-thirds majority. Kan’s Liberal Democratic Party predecessors fell back on this provision several times. But despite its massive electoral triumph in 2009 Kan’s party was still about a dozen votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override.

So the PM spent literally months in a fruitless effort to find a coalition partner ready to side with him in any disagreement with the upper house. The Diet has a dozen or so smaller parties that Kan could ally with, but they either made too many demands for their votes or simply didn’t have enough to make a difference. With every failure Kan’s popularity and prestige sank lower.

So despite the common wisdom, the March 11 earthquake/tsunami actually saved Kan’s bacon – at least for a while. The scope of the disaster made it harder for the opposition LDP to continue to be seen playing political games. It has allowed Kan to leave office with at least some legislative accomplishments, including two supplementary budgets to fund disaster relief and a law to encourage renewable energy development.

If portions of the constitution are contributing to dysfunction , why not change or amend the document? It is not as if the Japanese love the charter (though they do like many provisions). Many would be delighted if the document could be scrapped and rewritten word-for-word in Japanese, as it would at least be a “Japanese” charter, not one imposed by foreigners.

In recent years most of the momentum to amend the charter has come from conservatives and extreme nationalists, and they have focused almost entirely on repealing or modifying Article 9. That is the pacifistic provision, inserted into the document by the Americans, that expressly forbids Japan from waging war.

Although hated by conservative nationalists, Article 9 has proved to be popular with the general public, which is why their efforts so far have not been successful. Women are also worried that conservatives would repeal Article 24, the equal rights provision (years before the Equal Rights Amendment flared then fizzled at home, Americans wrote one into Japan’s constitution).

Meanwhile, for many years since the end of World War II, the left in Japan’s politics has defined itself to a large degree as being the guardians of the American-written Article 9 and has opposed any charter alterations, not even innocuous housekeeping measures meant to streamline governance, for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box.

Noda will inherit many problems: dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, rebuilding the devastated northeast, dealing with a global recession and the problems of an appreciating yen. But, like his immediate predecessors, he will also have to deal with a divided Diet, a legacy of the American occupation.