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Does Japan’s leader spend too much time in parliament?

  • January 16, 2017
  • , Nikkei Asian Review , 9:00 a.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — If Japan’s government is seeking ways to enhance its effectiveness, it might take another look at the quantity and quality of parliamentary debates involving the nation’s leader.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spends considerably more time chained to his seat in the Diet than his European counterparts. A Nikkei survey found that over the past six years, Abe and his predecessors participated in parliament an average of over 90 days a year. 


Japan Akademeia, a research organization, reports that Britain’s prime minister attended parliamentary sessions on 36 days from December 2008 to November 2009. In France, the number was just 12 in the year from July 2007 to July 2008. And Germany’s leader participated on only 11 days between November 2009 and November 2010.


In the U.K., the prime minister’s attendance revolved around scheduled debates between party chiefs. The leaders of Germany and France focused on plenary sessions and particularly important discussions.


Robert Campbell, an American-born professor of Japanese literature at University of Tokyo’s graduate school opined that Abe’s presence has done little to deepen the deliberations. Much of the world seems to agree that, most of the time, top leaders are more productive outside parliamentary chambers.


Changing the way Japan’s government operates, however, is easier said than done.


Always on call


Japan’s constitution stipulates that the prime minister must participate in Diet sessions whenever requested to do so. 


In an effort to reduce the prime minister’s attendance while improving the quality of Diet debates, the ruling coalition and the opposition previously agreed to limit the leader’s attendance at plenary sessions to days when important bills will be discussed, while increasing the number of debates between party heads. But the deal is effectively a dead letter.


The ruling camp has “few politicians” opposition parties want to hear from on the Diet floor, explained Reiko Oyama, a professor of politics at Komazawa University. Hence, Abe still gets plenty of attendance requests.


Yutaka Onishi, a professor at Kobe University’s graduate school, cast doubt on the value of debating the same legislation in both the lower and upper houses of the Diet with the prime minister on hand.


Naturally, having the prime minister publicly exchange opinions with opposition parties is crucial for holding the government accountable. But it is easy to see how too much time spent on repetitive debates or wrangling over the Diet schedule could have a negative effect, say, on diplomacy.


Freddy Svane, Denmark’s ambassador to Japan, suggested that reducing the prime minister’s attendance is unlikely to have ill effects.


Lawmakers, of course, would still need to hold constructive discussions in his absence.

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