Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Prime Minister And The Diet - A Primer

The National Diet of Japan is not sushi... it's this building.

If you are an idiot gaijin like me, then you may be wondering just WTF is up Japan and its never-ceasing penchant for elections.

The last five Japanese prime minsters each failed to last in office longer than a year - and newly-elected Noda Yoshihiko (surname first) of the Democratic Party of Japan is not expected to do much better unless he can figure out a way to unify is splintered political party and find a way to get the opposition to band together and help solve all of the country's problems, and discover a way to cure cancer.

No, he doesn't have cancer, rather that's about how successful it looks like Noda-san is going to be as Japan's top-elected official.

I thought I'd present a primer for you to try my best and explain how Japan's top political scene is determined. I'm not going to go too technical on you, as I would rather you actually understand what the system is all about.

Let me first start with the position of Prime Minister and then talk about the Diet - the entity that essentially has the Prime Minister's balls in their ever-clenched hands.


Since 1885, Japan has elected a Prime Minister - and with the upcoming appointment of Noda Yoshihiko in a few days time (that date isn't set yet), it will mean the country has had 62 Prime Ministers in 126 years. That's an average of 2 years in office per Prime Minister. Hell, I spent longer living in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan.

  • The Prime Minister (Naikaku sōri daijin) is appointed by the Emperor of Japan (thank goodness, because the carousel of PMs gives the Emperor plenty to do!), but only after that person is named by the Diet from a person within the enclave. So... it is still a popularity contest;

  • But proving that popularity is fleeting, the PM can only remain in office as long as he or she (yeah, right! In Japan!?? A Woman!?) has the confidence of the House of Representatives;

  • The PM is the head of the Cabinet (the cabinet contains ministers who look after all sorts of neat things like Agriculture or finance et al).

 To be elected, he must be named by the Diet... but first each of the two houses of the Diet must choose an appropriate candidate, which is done via a run-off ballot system. Should the two houses opt for two different individuals, then they have to appoint a joint committee who must decide on a single candidate within 10 days. 

Should a decision be unable to be reached after 10 days, the House of Representatives gets to make that decision on behalf of the Diet. I'll tell you more about the Diet down below.

A PM resigns if the House of Representatives has a no-confidence motion or defeats a vote of no-confidence... though he need not resign if the House of Representatives dissolves within 10 days.

Whatever. Actually, it's all pretty cool. If you aren't doing a good enough job as PM - out you go! And we'll find the next sacrificial lamb and led him to slaughter. It's sure better than having than Canada where we have to put up with one jackass after another for a four-year term at a time!

The Diet

The Diet seems like the real meat and potatoes of Japan's political structure - and it is. It was first convened as the Imperial in 1889, was amended to its current form in 1947 as part of Japan's post-war constitution. The National Diet Building is located in Nagatacho, Chiyado area of Tokyo.

As mentioned, there are two houses within the diet: The House of Representatives (also known as the Lower House), and the House of Councillors (The Upper House).

The Diet is responsible for passing laws and electing the poor bastard who will be Prime Minister for a short while.

In an election, the voting populace casts two votes: one for a party candidate; and the other for a party list.

Now here's where it gets confusing... okay, it was pretty confusing before - and I have a Political Science degree!

House of Representatives: 480 members; 300 are elected via single-seat constituencies, and 180 via 11 separate electoral blocs under the party list system of proportional representation. (yawn)

House of Councillors: 242 members with 146 elected from 47 prefectural (provincial/state) constituencies and 96 by open list of proportional representation from a single national list. (oh god...  I have no idea what that means).

Elected Diet members earn Y1.3-million /month = Y15.6-million year (~CDN $199,400). That's pretty good, but it sucks when you have such a short shelf life.

Anyhow... there's lots of interesting stuff (yawn) about the Diet, but I'm having a tough time staying on this diet... you think it's a great idea, but then you realize just how boring it is, and so you stray.

Look... just in case any of you read about the fact that Japan seems to get a new Prime Minister every year... there's a method to the madness.

And, boring though the whole thing might be to you - or exciting for those that don't have a hobby - Japanese politics is rife with land mines.

For example... the new PM Noda... this guy inherits a country wracked with having to rebuild itself after the earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan; plus it has a weak yen relative to the Canadian dollar (Canada's buck is stronger than the US!); it also has to look after all of the people displaced after near nuclear meltdown earlier this year - and while TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) is footing a lot of the bill, they have to be careful not to bankrupt the company, or else more crap is going to hit the proverbial folding fan. Tourism is down. Food exports have taken a beating. Power shortages (though that will be ending within a week); damaged reputations.  

In short... PM Noda is screwed - unless he has some gnarly superpowers. He's been set-up to fail.

Hell... even the last PM Kan Naoto (surname first)... like seriously... a 9.0 magnitude earthquake? A massive tsunami witnessed by the world, a several-week-long near meltdown at a nuclear power plant? What the hell was he going to do? He was screwed. That doesn't mean he did great things and was still screwed... or that he did evil things since he was screwed... he just did what he could. Which sucks when you're on a Diet or in a Diet. Perhaps they needed to get rid of him for simply being a jinx?

Appearances are everything. That's the whole point of a Diet.

Somewhere giving up politics,

Andrew Joseph

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