Japan Debates Peacekeeping 'til the Cows Come Home
Parliamentary opponents of Japanese involvement in overseas military operations are taking their time
IT'S called the "ox-step" or the "cow-walk," and it's a uniquely Japanese contribution to parliamentary procedure.Skip to next paragraph
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It gained brief attention from the international media recently as opposition Socialist and Communist Party legislators in Tokyo used it to delay passage of a bill allowing the Self Defense Force to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
To many Westerners, it's one more example that Japanese democracy is more a matter of face-saving facades than of substantive content. To the Japanese, it's a tactic that reflects the opposition's permanent weakness in face of the monopoly of government enjoyed by one party, the conservative Liberal Democrats, for almost all the past half-century. For the opposition, cow-walks are a nonviolent form of defiance. For the ruling party, they are to be tolerated, since they keep the opposition from boycotting
Here's how the tactic works. When the time comes to vote on a bill against which the opposition is adamant, the principal opposition party, the Socialists joined in this case by the Communists, introduces a series of censure motions, which take precedence over all other business.
Then, as each legislator's name is called, he or she rises and takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to walk the 20 or so feet to the ballot box before the Speaker's chair. If the legislator is too brisk, his supporters in the gallery shout, "Not so fast."
In the latest round of cow-walks, it took 11 1/2 hours to complete voting on the first of five censure motions. One legislator managed to take 30 minutes to dawdle his way to the rostrum, encouraged by supporters shouting, "What a work of art!"
The tactic gained its name in the early postwar period, when the Socialists used it against a government tax measure. "They walked as slowly as cows," a newspaper wrote. Since then it has been used, on the whole sparingly.
It is most effective when the Diet session is drawing to its close and the ruling party is reluctant to extend the session. That's the case now: The upper house, the House of Councillors, where the cow-walks took place, is due for elections in July and members are particularly eager to use weekends to cultivate their constituencies.
The cow-walks make deadly television. Viewers skip the public channel showing the tactic, or complain that if legislators feel so strongly about it, they should dissolve the Diet and fight it out in a general election.
So far, cow-walks have never actually succeeded in preventing unwanted legislation. The most they can do is to delay. Once in a while, during the course of that delay, the ruling party will offer a minor compromise, or a deal on some other bill. On this particular piece of legislation, however, now before the lower house where it will surely pass, the two sides have been too far apart for a compromise. On June 9 the Socialists abruptly abandoned their tactics when it became clear they had nothing further
to gain. But the constitutional issue remains.
Japan's American-drafted postwar constitution bans war and resorting to armed force. The ruling Liberal Democrats say that participating in a United Nations peacekeeping operation shouldn't come under this ban. In the upper house, where they are in a minority, they have formed a coalition with two minor parties to push the peacekeeping bill through.
The Socialists and the Communists say the peacekeeping bill is the thin edge of the wedge. Once the public is used to the Self Defense Force (SDF) serving overseas under the UN banner, it may become less hostile to the idea of the SDF serving overseas without that fig leaf, they say. Other Asian nations including China, which bore the brunt of Japanese aggression during World War II, have also expressed uneasiness over the peacekeeping bill.
This peacekeeping bill is considerably watered down from earlier versions and permits the SDF only to provide logistical support and to perform other noncombatant duties under the UN flag. Even so, it opens the door to a degree of participation by Japanese military units in the UN's peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Other overseas assignments will probably follow.
In my view, the peacekeeping bill, limited as it is, is a test of Japan's willingness to shed sweat, if not blood, in the cause of international peace. Cow-walks are picturesque, but an issue important enough to spur this kind of protest should be settled according to the fundamental law of democracy: Let the voter decide.