Editorial: Japan courts warn against Diet’s failure to address upper house vote disparity

Japanese courts have one after another handed down verdicts raising the alarm over the National Diet’s negligence for broadening inequality among voters, after the July House of Councilors election saw a disparity of up to 3.03 times in the value of a vote between the most and least populous constituencies in the country.

A total of 16 lawsuits were filed across Japan over the constitutionality of the July 10 election, and the high courts and their branches that tried the initial hearings of these cases have all reached their verdicts.

Of these, one of the courts ruled that the upper house contest was unconstitutional, while the poll was declared to be in a state of unconstitutionality in eight other cases. In the remaining seven cases, the courts labeled the election constitutional.

In similar lawsuits filed after the previous 2019 upper house election, where the vote disparity was up to three-fold, the courts ruled the election constitutional in 14 cases, and in a state of unconstitutionality in the other two. Considering the narrow gap in the vote-value disparity between the 2019 and 2022 elections, one could say the latest verdicts were harsher than in the previous set of lawsuits.

In the rulings that declared this summer’s upper house poll unconstitutional or in a state of unconstitutionality, the courts viewed it as problematic that no measures had been taken to correct the vote-value disparity since the 2019 election. The ruling and opposition parties failed to reach common ground over the issue during their consultations.

The Osaka High Court pointed out in its ruling that the Diet’s efforts in redressing the vote disparity “have significantly waned,” while the Miyazaki branch of the Fukuoka High Court slammed the legislature for “taking a huge step backward.”

In recent years, it has become the norm for judiciaries to attach heavy weight to endeavors to realize equality in the value of votes to avoid gaps between the number of voters per elected representative.

The Sendai High Court, the only court that ruled the 2022 upper house contest unconstitutional, stressed that vote-weight equality is a fundamental aspect of parliamentary democratic government. It pointed out that the current state where the populations in constituencies with three-fold-plus vote-value disparity account for over 20% of Japan’s total population represents serious inequality.

As Japan continues to face densely populated major cities and depopulation in rural areas, it cannot avoid witnessing further disparity in vote values ​​if the problem with constituencies is left unaddressed.

The Supreme Court has urged for the past decade that the system of using each of Japan’s 47 prefectures as the unit of constituency be reviewed.

As part of efforts to correct the vote-weight disparity, the neighboring prefectural constituencies of Tottori and Shimane, and Tokushima and Kochi, were each merged into single constituencies from the 2016 upper house election.

But as the merger of electoral districts requires consideration of the population size and geographical conditions in affected areas, there are limits to how far the issue can be resolved with this method alone. It is necessary to drastically overhaul the present electoral system.

To that end, we must question anew the role of the upper house itself. Unlike the House of Representatives, the upper house has no dissolution by the prime minister and its members serve a longer term, and it is therefore dubbed “the chamber of careful deliberation.” It is essential to make clear the raison d’etre of the upper house and its role-sharing with the lower chamber.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the 2022 upper house election as early as next year. Yet the ruling and opposition parties are urged to get their debate into full swing before waiting for the top court decision.


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