Japan's Upper House election and what it could mean for the Constitution

Ahead of Japan's Upper House election on July 21, Tadashi Iwami explains how Japan's government works and what impact the results could have on the Japanese Constitution.

Japan's legislative system

The Japanese legislature, called the National Diet, consists of two houses: the House of Representatives (the Lower House), and the House of Councillors (the Upper House). Both houses are directly elected, but in separate elections.

The 465 members of the Lower House are elected to serve four-year terms. A party needs 233 seats for a majority, and 310 for a two-thirds supermajority. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition currently hold 312 seats together. 

The Lower House may be dissolved at the discretion of the prime minister or as the result of a non-confidence motion.

Members of the Upper House serve six-year terms. Following the July 2018 electoral reform, the number of the seats has increased from 242 to 245. Half of these seats are contested every three years. At the moment, a party needs 123 seats to achieve a simple majority, and 164 seats for the supermajority. The LDP-Komeito coalition currently have a majority of 146.

Lower House vs Upper House

The role of the Lower House is to reflect public opinion. It also has stronger legislative powers. If the Upper House rejects a bill, the Lower House can override the vote with a two-thirds majority. The Lower House also has greater powers regarding the national budget, the signing of international laws and conventions, and the appointment of a prime minister. 

The role of the Upper House is to safeguard political decision-making processes from excessive populism. It acts as a stabiliser of the country’s mid to long-term direction. Unlike the Lower House, the Upper House cannot be dissolved by a prime minister. Six-year terms provide members with an opportunity to design, discuss and help pass bills with a long-term impact on Japan without being overly concerned about the next election.

The Upper House also acts as a break against excessive acceleration by the Lower House in passing bills underpinned by momentary popular support. The Upper House can check the Lower House’s decision by rejecting legislation and forcing the latter to gain two-thirds of members’ support.

This includes any revision of the Constitution of Japan.

Constitution of Japan

The Constitution of Japan has not been changed since it was enacted in 1947. However, the revision of the constitution has been one of the core manifestos of the LDP since the party was formed in 1955, specifically in relation to the status of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). 

Since its establishment in 1954, there has been considerable debate over whether or not the JSDF is constitutional under the Article 9 "peace clause". Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to end this debate by recognising the JSDF as official armed forces under a revised constitution. 

In the eyes of Abe and his colleagues, constitutional change would see Japan as a responsible state of the international community that proactively contributes to international peace and security, as opposed to past passive and reactive attitudes.

To amend the constitution, the LDP-Komeito coalition needs to achieve:

1. A supermajority of the seats in the Lower House (which it currently has)

2. A supermajority of the seats in the Upper House (which it currently does not have)

3. A simple majority in the proposed national referendum.

Analysis: What can we expect from this election?

Abe's LDP and Komeito coalition will win this election. His goal is to secure a majority and to do that they need 53 contested seats (together with 70 uncontested seats, this makes up 123 seats). They are expected to secure in the range of 69 and 77 given that Abe has been gaining steady support.

Abe’s ultimate goal is to make sure that he secures a supermajority of the seats in the Upper House so as to prepare for revising the Japanese Constitution. To this end, he needs to take more than 86 contested seats.

Is it possible for the ruling coalition to achieve this supermajority in this election for the Upper House? I don’t think it is, at least by themselves. The LDP-Komeito coalition would need support from minor parties more aligned on the issue of constitutional reform.

In my view, the majority of Japanese people want the stability and continuity of Abe's politics, rather than run the risk of switching to a disunited opposition party coalition. Continued uncertainties with the US and President Trump, his trade war against China and now the mini-trade war with South Korea will probably see the Japanese people choose to maintain the status quo.

This election is not only about the revision of the Japanese Constitution. However, the result will show us the degree of ripeness in Japan for revision of the constitution. I think the election result will prove that the Japanese people are steadily ready for constitutional revision. That is what the people want in this rapidly changing domestic and international political environment. Japan is moving towards it, one step at a time.

- Asia Media Centre