Diet’s party leader debate dying out in Japan

Debates between party leaders in the Diet have become a mere facade.

Modeled on Prime Minister’s Questions at the British Parliament, the leaders’ Diet party leader debates were introduced in 1999 and took place eight times in 2000.

One notable discussion was when in November 2012 then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced the move to dissolve the House of Representatives two days after a debate with then Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe.

However, the debates have been held only once or twice a year since 2013. Although the political parties agreed in 2014 to hold debates once a month in principle, none were held in 2017 and 2020.

The current situation is attributable to a change in the parliamentary tactics employed by opposition parties, which now place more emphasis on the Budget Committee meetings of the upper and lower houses. During these deliberations, opposition parties can question the prime minister for a long time, as opposed to a party leader debate, which is short and allows the prime minister to pose questions, too.

“The historic significance of a party leader debate has ended.” So said Yukio Edano, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), in May 2018 when Abe, then prime minister, was slow to answer questions during their debate and refused to reply directly.

In July 2018, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by LDP lower house member Shinjiro Koizumi, now the environment minister, proposed that a party leader debate be held once every two weeks or in the evening. That idea went nowhere, and there has been no momentum for reforming a party leader debate.

The opposition parties for the first time in two years called for a party leader debate because they apparently saw an opportunity to make a scene — with an eye on the upcoming lower house election — when there is no prospect of holding a Budget Committee meeting in the final stages of the current Diet session.

The debate lasted 45 minutes. Edano was previously allotted 20 minutes, but his time increased to 30 minutes because the CDPJ, newly established in September last year, has about 150 Diet members.

On the other hand, the Japan Innovation Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party had five minutes each.

“The time was too short,” vented Toranosuke Katayama, a co-leader of Nippon Ishin no Kai, after the debate.