Political Demons, Real or Imagined, Ride the ‘wind of Dissolution’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announces that he will not dissolve the House of Representatives in the current Diet session at the Prime Minister’s Office on June 15, 2023.

“A suspicious mind sees demons in the dark.”

That’s the image conjured up by the Japanese idiom “gishin anki.” It expresses the idea that when people get carried away by suspicion or fear, they may end up seeing “demons,” meaning threats that don’t really exist.

In Nagatacho in early June, such a demon went on a rampage over whether Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should dissolve the House of Representatives.

The trigger was Kishida’s remarks on June 13. Regarding the possibility of dissolving the House of Representatives in the current Diet session, he turned away from his previous statement that he was “not considering” dissolution in order to concentrate on important issues. Instead, he said, “Various affairs are expected near the end of the session, and I would like to make a decision based on the situation.” His unusual words and actions, delivered with an inappropriate grin on his face, fueled the suspicions of ruling and opposition lawmakers alike, and the “wind of dissolution” whipped up a tempest.

The prime minister’s every move over a potential dissolution raises suspicion and alarm because in Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system, the prime minister has the power to dissolve the House of Representatives. This is very different from the “separation of powers” in a presidential system such as that of the United States, in which the executive does not require the confidence of either the Senate or the House of Representatives and also does not have the power to dissolve them.

Japan’s Constitution provides two ways for the House of Representatives to be dissolved. Article 7 states that dissolution shall be carried out as an act of state by the Emperor “with the advice and approval of the Cabinet.” And Article 69 states that if a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet is passed by the House of Representatives, the house must be dissolved within 10 days or the Cabinet must resign en masse.

Of the 24 dissolutions that have taken place since the Constitution’s enactment, there were four cases in which the House of Representatives was dissolved under Article 69. In the other 20 cases, it was dissolved based solely on Article 7. Since the prime minister can effectively decide on the dissolution under Article 7 by choosing the most convenient time, the right of dissolution has been described in terms such as the “exclusive matter” of the prime minister, or even “the treasure sword passed down from generation to generation.”

Prime Minister Kishida’s current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party — effectively equivalent to his term as prime minister — will expire in September 2024, and the current terms of House of Representatives members will expire by October 2025. Speculation that the prime minister might dissolve the House of Representatives in the current Diet session gathered steam after Kishida visited Ukraine in March. Then the LDP won four of the five by-elections that were held in April, and Kishida attracted a great deal of positive attention as host of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, to which he invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in May. As a result, his Cabinet’s approval rating in Yomiuri Shimbun polls recovered to 56% in May, after having dropped to 36% in November last year.

In addition, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) made great strides in the unified local elections in April, and some in the government and ruling parties began to feel anxious that it would be more advantageous to hold a House of Representatives election before Ishin had time to prepare for it. Under such circumstances, the prime minister’s remark hinting at dissolution created a tense atmosphere among the ruling and opposition parties.

Views were divided on whether his remark was serious or a bluff, and the main focus of the final session of the Diet was whether or not the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, would submit a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet that could trigger its dissolution. A vote of no confidence in the Cabinet is a proposal that expresses the view of the House of Representatives that the Cabinet has lost its trust.

In the current Diet, where the ruling party has a majority, there is no prospect of passing a no-confidence motion. Still, the opposition parties might decide to submit one, more as a demonstration of their confrontational stance than as a real effort to pressure the prime minister to dissolve the lower house. Even so, there is a possibility that the submission of a no-confidence motion could lead a prime minister to opt for dissolution, thinking, “If opposition parties don’t approve of my Cabinet, we need to ask the people to clarify if the opposition parties are right or not.”

In fact, in response to the prime minister’s remarks, the opposition parties became more vigilant, with CDPJ Diet Affairs Committee Chairperson Jun Azumi warning that “the prime minister himself is blowing the ‘wind of dissolution.’” In considering the submission of a no-confidence motion, timing it around the enactment of the bill to secure funding for the expected increase in defense spending on June 16 was considered to be the most likely. Cautious arguments were held in the CDPJ that a no-confidence motion could trigger a House of Representatives election for which it was unprepared, while there was also concern that forgoing such a motion would be criticized as “weak.”

As things turned out, Kishida made another remark on June 15, two days after the press conference, saying, “I am not considering dissolution in this Diet session.” The “wind of dissolution” quickly subsided. The prime minister explained, “This is because it’s probable to pass an important bill in the current Diet session.”

However, there’s another perspective to look into Kishida’s real intention. In the background, there appeared a combination of uncertainties that might lead to a significant reduction in seats if an election were held. Kishida’s eldest son, who was serving as a private secretary to his father, was replaced because of his inappropriate behavior at the prime minister’s residence. And the My Number Card, which the government been strongly promoting, ran into a series of problems. Relations with Komeito, the LDP’s ruling coalition partner, deteriorated over the adjustment of electoral districts, and Komeito decided to end its electoral cooperation with the LDP in Tokyo constituencies.

So, what was Kishida’s true intention in blowing the “wind of dissolution” after all? An LDP official explains, “It must have been the prime minister’s message to the CDPJ.” In other words: “Allow us to pass at least the bill to support increased defense spending, which is the most important bill. Then, even if you submit a motion of no confidence after passing the bill, we will just reject it, and not dissolve the House of Representatives. That must be the best scenario for you, the CDPJ. However, if you submit a motion of no confidence before the bill passes, it’s most likely that I may dissolve the house immediately. Think twice.”

A CDPJ Diet Affairs Committee source reveals that the LDP Diet Affairs Committee warned them against a motion of no confidence by suggesting Kishida’s intention in similar terms behind closed doors.

And that is basically how things played out. The defense bill was passed by the House of Councillors on June 16, and the CDPJ proposed a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives on the same day. The motion was voted down, and there was no dissolution.

The unprecedented turmoil regarding dissolution caused by the prime minister himself sparked resentment among both the ruling and opposition parties that “the prime minister toyed with the right to dissolve the house.” CDPJ leader Kenta Izumi criticized Kishida, saying, “There may have been prime ministers who indicated that they were going to pull out the ‘treasure sword’ of the right to dissolve, but Kishida was the only prime minister to practice such saber-rattling from the beginning.”

According to a poll conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun after the ordinary Diet session ended, Kishida’s approval rating plummeted by 15 points to 41% due mainly to the My Number chaos. Kishida has likely once again drawn up a strategy of dissolving the House of Representatives after autumn, but it might be difficult unless the low approval rating can be reversed.

Another Japanese saying has it that “elections are demons,” meaning that unexpected results can occur if you are not cautious. If Kishida continues to take the same approach regarding the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the prime minister himself may end up at the mercy of a demon.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Yukiko Ishikawa

Ishikawa is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.