Now that the budget for the fiscal year starting in April 2000 has secured approval by its passage through the House of Representatives on February 29, three issues stand out on the political landscape. First is the progress of deliberations in the National Diet on budget-related bills and other issues. Second is the preparations for this summer’s Kyûshû-Okinawa summit meeting of the Group of Eight nations. And third is the timing of the general election for the lower house, the biggest event on the domestic political agenda for this year.

Over the years since the speculative bubbles of the late 1980s collapsed, plunging the economy into a slump it has yet to shake off, Japan’s birthrate has continued to fall, and its population has been graying at a pace faster than that of any other nation. The government debt, meanwhile, has been relentlessly mounting to astronomical proportions, and it will take decades to whittle it down to size.

In the upcoming general election, which must be held no later than October, the people will have the chance to determine whether or not Prime Minister Obuchi Keizô continues to orchestrate the government’s response to this crisis. The election will also be significant for the course it sets for the nation in the early years of the twenty-first century.

The curtain opened on this year’s Diet session with a serious brawl over a proposal to cut the number of seats in the House of Representatives. The Obuchi administration was determined to secure quick passage of a bill reducing the lower house membership from 500 to 480. Ozawa Ichirô, the forceful leader of the small Liberal Party, had secured a promise of a 50-seat cut as part of the agreement under which his party formed a coalition with the LDP back in January 1999. But the administration had deferred acting on this issue. As the end of the year approached, Ozawa delivered an ultimatum: Secure passage of a reduction at the beginning of the new year’s Diet session, or else the Liberals will pull out of the ruling coalition. Obuchi had agreed to put a 20-seat cut (reduced from the original 50 based on subsequent negotiations among the ruling parties) at the top of the legislative calendar, preceding even the prime minister’s policy speech, which is traditionally the first order of business.

The three main opposition parties—the Democratic Party of Japan, Japanese Communist Party, and Social Democratic Party—saw this move as presenting a chance for them to rock the boat and maybe even to bring the government down. They were eyeing the fall in public support for Obuchi since October, when he added the New Kômeitô to the ruling coalition, and felt that an early election would benefit them. So they demanded that more time be allowed to deliberate this piece of legislation, and when the government refused, they boycotted all Diet deliberations. The ruling coalition then proceeded to pass the seat cut through the lower house, after which the prime minister delivered his policy speech without the opposition members in attendance, an event unprecedented in Japan’s parliamentary history. The boycott continued as Foreign Minister Kôno Yôhei and Finance Minister Miyazawa Kiichi delivered their opening addresses.

Subsequently the upper house passed the bill with the opposition still absent. And then the Diet returned to normal with the approval by the ruling and opposition parties of the second of two conciliation proposals worked out by Itô Sôichirô, the speaker of the lower house. Thus the strong-arm tactics of Obuchi and the ruling parties proved successful in the end.

Before the amendment the lower house had 300 seats in single-member constituencies and 200 seats in proportional-representation blocs. All the seats that have now been eliminated are in the proportional-representation part of the house, reducing its size to 180 seats.

Once it became evident that the budget would gain approval before fiscal 2000 began, Obuchi said that he would decide on the timing of a general election after the budget-related bills had also passed. The administration has placed or will soon place 92 pieces of legislation before the Diet’s current session, of which 37 have budgetary provisions. In addition, last year’s extraordinary Diet session left 9 bills pending.

Among the pending matters, one is a change in the starting age of benefit payments for the wage-linked portion of one of the major public pension schemes, the Employees’ Pension Fund, which covers most corporate employees. Opposition to this plan, under which the starting age is to be hiked in stages from 60 to 65, has been voiced by the Democrats and others. Another is the introduction of private defined-contribution pension schemes modeled on America’s 401(k) plans. The amount of the benefits will depend on the success of the investment of contributed pension funds. Another bill, one that has been submitted by legislators rather than the government, would give state aid to electric power businesses making use of solar power, wind power, and other such energy sources.

Notable among the new bills is one to make an official delay of one year, until April 2002, in the introduction of provisions to place a ¥10 million cap on relief payments to people who have money in banks that fail. Another bill would expand the scope of the allowances paid to families with children, broadening the coverage from children under the age of three to children under school age.

All such matters are connected in one way or another to domestic administration. Very few of the bills before the legislature deal with foreign policy or national security. When the present three-party ruling structure was being assembled, the LDP, Liberal Party, and Kômeitô reached agreement on revising the International Peace Cooperation Law to allow Japanese units to participate in the core duties of United Nations peacekeeping forces (a “freeze” under the present law limits them to logistical activities). But no bill has yet been written because the three parties have not reached agreement on how to deal with the existing five principles limiting Japanese participation in peacekeeping missions.

Thus far two political scandals of a sort have been brought up in the Diet, one involving the acquisition of stock by an aide of Prime Minister Obuchi, the other involving political contributions to Hatoyama Yukio, head of the DPJ, but no action has been taken on either. In late February Ochi Michio, chairman of the Financial Reconstruction Commission, stepped down to take responsibility for a remark he made at an unofficial gathering implying that favorable consideration might be given to particular financial institutions under government audit, and Tanigaki Sadakazu, a former director general of the Science and Technology Agency, was named to replace him. Though Ochi appeared only to have been paying preelection lip service to senior managers of small financial institutions, the opposition got what mileage it could from his careless remark.

Obuchi has placed the upcoming G8 summit at the top of his agenda, and in January he visited Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to hear what their leaders expect of Japan at the summit. In his policy speech to the Diet he declared that the summit must be made a success and expressed the wish that it deliver a “hopeful, powerful message” to the world for the realization of “a century of peace.” As part of the preparatory drive, Foreign Minister Kôno visited Britain, France, and Italy in January and then went on to the United States, where he talked over summit arrangements with President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

After Kôno came back, formal negotiations began between Tokyo and Washington on the so-called sympathy budget, the funding the Japanese government provides for the 47,000 American troops stationed in Japan. The size of this allocation in the fiscal 2000 budget is ¥276 billion. The special agreement governing the funding is to expire in March 2001. When Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott came to Japan recently, he asked the leaders of the government and the ruling parties to keep the money flowing after that. But Tokyo wants to cut the amount.

Obuchi apparently desires to have China take part in the Okinawa summit in one way or another, but the U.S. government, which is unhappy with Beijing for, among other reasons, its human-rights record, is hardly eager to see that happen. In late March elections will be held for the presidents of Russia and Taiwan. Tokyo is hoping that Russia’s new president will take an active interest in relations with Japan. Taiwan’s election, meanwhile, may lead to changes not just in the delicate relationship between Taipei and Beijing but also in the climate between Japan and its former colony. Unlike today’s President Lee Teng-hui, who received a Japanese education, none of the candidates to succeed him is particularly familiar with Japan. There is also a possibility that the outcome of the Taiwanese vote will somehow influence China’s stance toward the Okinawa summit.

The Japanese public is becoming increasingly interested in the question of when the general election will be held. If it comes before the expiry of the lower house members’ full term of office, which is on October 19, it must be preceded by a dissolution of the Diet while it is in session. This limits the possibilities for dissolution to the current session, which is to end on June 17, or an extraordinary session opened in July or later. With the Okinawa summit set to begin on July 21, the chances of a dissolution shortly before that are slim. More likely is that Obuchi, hoping to profit from the momentum of a successfully hosted summit, will dissolve the Diet in August for a September election. (YANAGAWA Takuya, political journalist)