Online deliberations in Japan’s Diet ‘possible’ under the Constitution

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of the House of Representatives’ Commission on Constitution discuss a report on online Diet deliberations at the Diet Building in Tokyo on Thursday.

Online deliberations in the Diet could soon become a reality after the House of Representatives’ Commission on the Constitution voted Thursday to adopt a report stating that it was constitutionally permissible in the event of an emergency.

The report was adopted by a majority of the ruling and opposition parties, except for the Japanese Communist Party. It will shortly be submitted to the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the lower house and the chair of the Committee on Rules and Administration, and further detailed discussions will be urged.

This is the first time that a constitutional commission has expressed a view on the interpretation of an article of the Constitution.

Article 56 of the Constitution stipulates that one-third or more of all lawmakers must be present for a plenary session of both chambers of the Diet to be convened. The report noted that in principle, the article requires the “physical presence” of lawmakers in the chamber, but in exceptional emergency cases, they could attend online.

The commission members decided that for deliberations and voting, lawmakers are considered present even if online. They also emphasized the provision in Article 58 of the Constitution that states: “Each House shall establish its rules pertaining to meetings, proceedings and internal discipline.”

At the meeting, five parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), the Democratic Party for the People — and a small faction, Yushinokai, voted in favor of the report.

“Our commission should play an active role in presenting our view,” DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki said.

The LDP initially held that the article demands physical attendance in principle and that online deliberations would require a constitutional amendment. But it changed its course when Komeito and many opposition parties aligned on the position that online attendance could be made possible if the provisions of the Constitution were reinterpreted.

The JCP stood alone in opposing the move, with the party’s Seiken Akamine declaring: “Finalizing the interpretation of a constitutional article using force of numbers is too rough an approach and absolutely unacceptable. It is beyond your authority!”

The lower house — primarily the Committee on Rules and Administration — plans to design a system to facilitate online deliberations, including amending the rules of the lower house. However, many issues must be addressed, including verification of online identity and whether emergencies will be limited to disasters or outbreaks of infectious disease.

The ruling and opposition parties both opined that it will not be easy to realize the plan.

Meanwhile, Yoshitaka Shindo, head of the ruling coalition in the commission, proposed Thursday that the commission continue to meet next week to discuss how to define an “emergency.”

The commission compiled the report after four consecutive weeks of discussions in the current session of the Diet — the fastest-moving talks since the commission was first initiated in 2011. The LDP reportedly hopes to leverage this momentum to quickly tackle its original goal of debating revisions to the Constitution.

The CDPJ’s Soichiro Okuno, the leading opposition voice on the commission, opposed the LDP’s intentions. The CDPJ has been open to online deliberations because the issue does not require constitutional change, but it remains cautious about discussing amendments to the Constitution. “We need to stop and think [about it],” Okuno said.