Parliamentary Procedure in Japan
Tokyo, April 29, 1891
It is, no doubt, safe to say that of all that Japan has done and undone during the process of being born again which she has undergone during the past 25 years, and is still undergoing, the feature of chief interest for Western minds is her recent adoption of representative institutions.
The birth of the first Oriental Parliament would be, under any circumstances, a landmark in history.
But, coming as it has done in the train of all the swift and picturesque changes with which Japan has surprised the present generation of onlookers, it cannot but arouse an exceptional degree of curiosity and interest in the mind of every intelligent watcher of far Eastern affairs.
Thirty-five years ago Japan was, practically, a hermit nation.
Till 1869, she was still in the bonds of feudalism.
Today sees her under the full sway of constitutional government, and able to look back with satisfaction on the doings of the first session of her first Diet.
I do not propose to deal in this letter with the legislative work of the session which ended last March - further than to say that, in spite of a few blemishes which were only to be expected, the Parliament acquitted itself well, got through some useful work, and gave evidence of a capacity only needing time and experience to bring it up to a high level.
Speaking generally, the press and people, if not exactly enthusiastic about the first issue of Japan's great experiment, seem to be of opinion that matters have gone a good deal better than the nation had any right to expect.
What English readers, however, will chiefly care to hear about is the way in which things are carried on in the Japanese Diet-the rules and procedure, the debating, the demeanour and capacity of the members, the shothand reporting, and other details.
To the task of sketching these I, therefore, now address myself.
In The Times of the 6th of last January I described the constitution of the two Houses of the Diet, as well as the temporary Parliament buildings.
The latter were burned to the ground on the 19th of January.
But new buildings on the same site, and on nearly the same plan, are being quickly raised.
In each Chamber the seats of the members occupy a space shaped like the silk-covered part of an open folding fan, the ribs of which answer to radial passages that divide the area into nine equal blocks, composed of tiers of arc-shaped benches with tables before them, concentric with the general curvature.
This system of benches slopes down towards a raised dais, whereon stand the President's table and chair, and immediately before these, on a slightly lower level, the rostrum for speakers.
At the President's elbow sits the Chief Secretary; behind him other secretaries and clerks.
Right and left of the rostrum are seats for Ministers of State and Government Delegates; and the reporters' table is on the floor of the House, directly under the rostrum.
The division of the members'benches into nine blocks is a part of the system under which the members themselves are divided into nine Sections.
A peculiar feature of this distribution is that, being determined by lot, it results in a thorough intermingling of members of all shades of political opinion.
Its conveniences are that it facilitates voting by ballot, as well as the formatiom of the Committees by which much of the work is done.
These always number nine or some multiple of nine, and are made up of members elected, in equal numbers, from and by each of the nine Sections.
The President, corresponding with the Speaker of Western Parliaments, has, of course, high powers.
He determines the Orders of the Day, grants the right of speaking in cases not already covered by those Orders, checks irrelevancy, and takes care that movers and introducers do not abuse their privilege of addressing the House more than once in a debate, or glide from explanation into argument when doing so.
He decides whether a member shall speak from the rostrum or from his seat, the latter being usually allowed if brevity can be counted on - except at moments of excitement, when the intending speaker's advance from his seat to the rostrum is insisted on, and has an admirably soothing effect.
The President may also extend the sitting beyond the usual hour, which is 6 p.m., and may even close the day's proceedings at any time if things look uncomfortably stormy.
A milder way, at his disposal, of stilling excitement is to order a short recess; and hitherto this has been found to answer.
If any speaker transgress in speech, the President may warn him, stop him, or order him to withdraw his remarks; and, if he be contumacious, may prohibit him from speaking for the rest of the day, or direct him to leave the House, or hand over his case to the mercies of the standing Disciplinary Committee, whose authority extends to reprimand, suspension, and even expulsion.
Among other powers vested in the President are those of deciding disputed interpretations of the Constitution, the Law of the Houses, or the Rules of Procedure, and of determining when a debate is ended.
In practice, however, the opinion of the House is usually taken on the former, while debates are nearly always terminated by means of the closure.
This, if moved and supported by any two members, must be put to the House without discussion - a system which would place almost tyrannical power in the hands of any majority if it were not to some extent safeguarded by provisions under which precedence is given to members who have notified their intention of speaking in time to have such intention included in the Orders of the Day, and which also prescribe that discussion shall be carried on alternately by supporters and opponents of the proposal before the House.
Lastly, the President, though actually receiving his appointment from the Emperor, is, in the case of the Lower Chamber, one of three candidates nominated by the House itself from among its members.
Absolute impartiality is, of course, expected and required of him in everything appertaining to his control of the procedure; and it is only fair to say that this quality was most happily displayed by President Nakajima throughout the Diet's first session.
But the President is not required to divest himself wholly of the exercise of a member's functions, seeing that he may, after announcing his intention, take part in debate and also vote, if he vacate his chair in favour of the Vice-President until the debate is finished.
From the fact that the President is virtually the House's choice, it follows that, as now, so in the future, he may be expected to belong to the party most numerously represented in the Chamber.
The ballot for the Vice-President follows that for the President; and, unless the principal party pushes its advantage for the second place also, it will usually happen, as happened last November, that the Vice-President will be he who runs second for the Presidency, and will belong to the party that stands second in numerical strength.
In the Peer's House, on the other hand, the President and Vice-President are purely Imperial nominees.
Next in importance to the offices above named comes that of Chairman of Committee of the whole House, an unsalaried functionary, elected by the members at the beginning of the session, for that session only, whereas the President and Vice President sit for the life of the Parliament, namely, four years.
I have already referred to the Law of the Houses and the Rules of Procedure.
Those constitute the Standing Orders.
The former is a part of the Constitution.
The latter form a volume containing 213 rules, which were drafted by the Government before the Diet was assembled, and adopted by both Houses after examination by Committees.
On the whole they have worked well, and, though there has been some talk of amendment, they still stand as drafted.
Naturally, looking to the extreme novelty of the situation, the Diet in its first session had all its work cut out - to master the details and meanings of the Law and Rules, to evolve an intelligent and orderly procedure, and, besides, to deal with the pressing business that had to be despatched in a period of three months, with sittings of five hours per diem.
That all this was well accomplished is generally allowed.
If the doings in the Peer's Chamber were marked by greater sobriety, dignity, and self-restraint than were those in the House of Representatives, the contrast has ample precedents elsewhere, and it cannot be said that the proceedings in the Commons ever passed the point of permissible excitement.
One of the things that at once strike a visitor to the Japanese Parliament is the extraordinary coolness and aplomb of the speakers.
I have sometimes heard with amazement young Japanese graduates address a great assembly of, perhaps, 2,000 spectators as calmly and with as little self-consciousnesss as if speaking to friends at home.
Just as calmly have I often seen any - even of the youngest - of the 550 members of the Diet advance to the rostrum and therefrom literally talk to the House, sometimes with good-humoured, smiling ease, and always without a sign of nervousness or hesitation in manner, voice, or matter.
Perfect self-possession before an audience seems, indeed, to be one of the national gifts.
Powerful and soul-stirring oratory is rarely heard, a Japanese speaker's remarkable coolness conducing rather to logical and impassioned exposition.
The former, however, finds little favour with Japan's legislators.
Nor, indeed, does the Japanese language readily lend itself to eloquence or oratorical display as understood by us.
The styles best liked here are two in number - one that of the polished scholar, with its even flow of well chosen and artistically grouped words; the other appertaining rather to the modern schools of exact learning and thought, in which grace and scholarship are ruthlessly sacrificed to brevity, directnss, and, above all, to lucidity.
Another feature which attracts a stranger's notice is the evident earnestness of the proceedings.
There can be no mistaking the attentive interest bestowed by the members generally on the words of the speaker, the papers covering their desks, and the volumes of the Rules.
In aspect the assemblies are of a motley order.
One-half, perhaps, wear foreign dress, the rest the statelier and more becoming Japanese robes, which might, indeed, have been expressly designed for Senators.
All grades and styles of the upper and middle classes are represented - from nobles of ancient and august lineage, and grave, gray men of the old samurai class, to sturdy, mild-looking landowners, and bright-eyed juniors with the wild hair, intense look, and careless dress so much affected by some of the modern literali.
Spectacles are worn by about a third of the numbers; hats by none.
Attached by a hinge to every desk is a low square block, having painted on it in large white numerals, on each face, the member's number, which can thus be read from any part of the House.
This block is kept erect during the member's presence, and lowered when he leaves his seat.
But the intention of the arrangement-namely, that members should be referred to by their numbers only - has practically broken down.
Japanese politeness soon rebelled against so chilly a system; and, except from the mouths of a few precisionists, or when seeking the President's leave to speak, names now take almost always the place of numbers.
In respect of what we call "catching the Speaker's eye," Japanese practice is peculiar, and to the uninformed spectator produces an effect which not only savours strongly of disorder, but seems almost cruel in its tendency to utterly crush effective peroration on the part of the speaker who "has the floor."
No sooner are the stereotyped phrases heard which in Japanese oratory herald the end of a speech than perhaps a half-dozen members, rising hastily and grasping their blocks, get up something very like an uproar in their vehement efforts to secure the right of speaking next.
Such cries as "President, No.52," or "President; Suyematsu Kencho," fill the air; and it is not until the Gicho, or President, has made it clear whom he favours that the hubbub subsides.
The whole effect is unfortunate, and greater dignity of procedure would certainly be gained by recourse to some less noisy system.
Votes may be taken in any of four ways, which, to quote from the Japan Daily Mail's masterly exposition of the whole subject, are as follows; -
<First, by requiring the "contents" to stand; secondly, by calling the roll and requiring members to vote aloud from their places; thirdly, by ballot without names; and, fourthly by ballot with names.
The President may decide which of these methods shall be employed.
It need scarcely be said that he generally selects the first, but, if a motion having at least 30 supporters is made in favour of any of the other three, the sense of the House is taken.
The result of a vote by standing may be challenged by one member, and recourse must then be had to one of the other methods, at the President's discretion; but no objection to the vote by roll-call is valid unless it finds at least 20 supporters.
In the case of written ballots white and blue papers are employed, each member writing his name.
For unwritten ballots, black and white balls are used, accompanied by the cards of the voters.>
In both Houses the general procedure is nearly idedntical, and in both much of the business is done by Standing and Special Committee.
Of the former there are, for each House, besides the Disciplinary Committee already mentioned, a Petitions Committee and a Budget Committee; and the Peers have also a Qualifications Committee, charged with examining into all questions relating to the qualifications of members.
To the Petitions Committee belongs the task of receiving petitions and abstracting their main points for the information of the Chamber, with which it rests whether to reject them or transmit them to the Government.
The Committee may also make recommendations to the House.
Debating on petitions is not required, unless the Committee or at least 30 members urge that course.
The Budget Committee has 15 days in which to examine the Budget sent up by the Government, and to prepare its report and recommendations thereon; and Delegates from all the State departments attend the Committee's meetings, to give information in detail.
Government Bills, and, in general, Private Bills, are examined and reported on by special Committees after the first reading, at which, in the case of the former, Ministers of State or Government Delegates attend, to make explanations and answer questions, while the later stages are watched throughout by the Delegates, who may speak at any time during a debate on the Bill if they do not interrupt the speeches of members, and who are obliged to answer all questions put by the Committee or in the House.
Government Bills take precedence of other measures, and Private Bills cannot be introduced unless supported by at least 20 members.
Amendments to all Bills must also have not less than 20 supporters before they can be debated, though for amendments to Committee's reports one supporter is enough.
A Committee's report, if agreed to by more than a two-thirds majority, is held to be unanimous; but, if one-third dissent, a minority report may be submitted.
Debate ensues, at which the House votes for or against a second reading.
This may be opened after two days' delay, or after a shorter interval or at once if the House so decide.
The same rule applies to the third reading, if not dispensed with.
But on this occasion amendments are forbidden, except in cases of obvious necessity.
Government Bills may be presented to either House first, as the convenience of business suggests.
The Budget, however, must go first to the Commons, and no amendment on it can be debated if not supported by at least 30 members.
So much of its appropriations as may be required for the exercise of the Imperial prerogatives can be neither reduced nor rejected without Government assent, which must be sought before either step is voted upon.
To receive Imperial assent, all Bills must pass both Houses; and, provided that neither rejects a Bill, a special arrangement - namely, a conference of ten Managers from each Chamber - exists, for bringing the two into harmony in respect of any amendments on which they may have disagreed.
Adjustment having been effected by the Managers, the Bill is returned to the Houses, to be accepted or rejected en bloc.
Besides the projects of law to which the foregoing particulars chiefly relate, each House may present Addresses to the Throne and make Representations to the Government, provided that in every case they are brought forward with the support of at least 30 members.
Only by one or the other of these can Parliament approach interference in matters falling within the scope of the Imperial prerogatives.
Questions may also be asked of the Government, if signed by at least 30 members and submitted through the President to the proper Minister of State, who must either answer them or give his reasons for declining.
The above is a broad outline of Japanese Parliamentary procedure.
To describe it in complete detail is impossible within any ordinary compass.
It will be seen that the Cabinet occupies a peculiar position towards the Diet, being nominally independent of its votes, and having no recognised supporters among the members.
The Ministers of State and Government Delegates, having the right to sit in the House and speak at any time, though not to vote, constitute the link between the Administration and the Legislature.
It will be gathered, moreover, that the framers of Japan's Constitution, with the world's successes and failures as their guides, have aimed at elaborating a system combining the liberty proper to Parliamentary institutions with due safeguards against licence.
They have borrowed from the fabrics of the European Continent, the United States, and England, adapting what they borrowed to existing conditions in Japan.
There is no slavish copying of any one model, and scarcely anything has been adopted without modification.
From England was inhaled the spirit of liberty which permeates the whole, while the Sectional division of the Chambers was inspired by examples from the Continent, and the Committee system embodies the best features of the United States' practice.
It remains to be seen what measure of final success will attend these efforts to strike a happy mean, with special adaptation to the country's circumstances and to the capacity and character of its representatives.
Augury from the results of a first brief session would be premature.
Meantime, the particulars presented above may serve to whet the interest with which the gradual working-out of Japan's tremendous experiment will be watched by students of representative government all over the world.
The very novel and interesting subject of the stenographic reporting of the speeches in Japan's Diet, delivered as they are in an ideographic language, must be reserved for another letter.
The Times - Jul. 11th
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