Hello All. Free time in Tokyo? A little diversion you might consider:

SEPTEMBER 25 AND 27, 2001

(released to Friends and several mailing lists November 9, 2001)

Did you know there are tours of the ostensible seat of Japan's government--the Diet Building (Kokkai Gijidou) in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo? Thought not. Go. It's worth the trip (especially since admission is free) and it's not all that difficult to get in. Take Marunouchi or Chiyoda subway lines to Kokkai Gijidou-Mae, where exits surface right next to the Prime Minister's Residence, all within sight of Japan's legislative and administrative centers in Kasumigaseki and Nagatachou. Open weekdays 8am to 5pm when the Diet is not in session.

For you armchair tourists out there, let me give you the five-yen tour:


SEPTEMBER 25, 2001, 3:45 PM.

It was a clean, sunny Tokyo September afternoon, and the neighborhood's atmosphere of administrative orderliness seemed tailored to match. There was one small glitch: a palpable bullet-proofed police prescence, in light of recent terrorist fears (as well as from years of Red Army threats and even one subway sarin gas attack). Still, the cops were not on high alert, and my raiment (shirt and tie, slacks with dress shoes: I had just finished rather fruitless talks with Monbusho bureaucrats) didn't attract too many detective looks. I too felt sunny--there to sightsee, not make a fuss for a change, and the cops were cordial as I asked for directions to the Diet Building's tour desk.

Quick establishing shot: The Japanese Diet is a grey-stone structure with square-upon-square architecture, vaguely resembling mausoleums I've seen, no irony intended, in totalitarian countries. When viewed from above, the complex is shaped like a knobby figure eight, and when viewed from the front, the House of Councillors (aka the Upper House, or Sangiin, see http://www.sangiin.go.jp/eng/) is on the northern right, the House of Representatives (Lower House, Shuugiin, see http://www.shugiin.go.jp/itdb_main.nsf/html/index_e.htm) on the southern left. Finally, in the center jutting out very prominently, looking architecturally (sorry, no offense) like some structures I made with building blocks as a kid, is the symbol of the Japanese government: a square ziggurat-raised-upon-a-classic-car-radiator-grille-shaped tower (see what I mean at http://www.ncusd203.org/north/imc/japan/tokyo/diet/government.htm). After a few beers you might expect the Diet Building to change into a "transformer" style robot, head and shoulders already visible, to rise from the earth and stroll around Kantou.

That Sept 25 I visited the right-hand shoulder, the House of Councillors (HoC), making it in time for the last 40-minute tour (sankan) of the day. It's not too much of a hassle to get in. Security procedures are reasonable--the HoC Police Department (they have their own special branch) was not too gruff while they checked my home address. I did attract some extra attention, being a Kanjified Caucasian with an irregularly-read Hokkaido place name, but not enough to warrant a full body cavity search.

After ten minutes (spent in a waiting room watching very informative videos on Japan's legislative dynamics), a few families and I were taken downstairs to the open-air basement area for cursory metal detection. Then a young cop took us inside the building proper, through a fairly disorienting series of elevators and corridors, some floors up to the Public Gallery waiting room. Awaiting final admission to the Gallery, we studied a framed schematic of what Councillors sat where and how many of them we knew (many are "tarento" media personalities). Surprisingly, the more elderly and bored guards welcomed questions and provided us with all the tarento trivia we could handle.

In we went. Imagine the Assembly complex as a rectangular cardboard box, opened so that one lengthwise box top flap is open straight up and down, while the other three box-top flaps are folded at an angle radiating out. The three angled tops are the Galleries. The largest box flap, facing the wide wall, is the Gallery for the general public. The Gallery-flap on the left is for royalty and overseas dignitaries, while the one on the right is for press and VIPs. Front-row seating at the lip of all the Galleries, i.e. along the edge of the box, is a buffer zone reserved for the Press Corps. As an added bonus, nestled into the walls are the best seats in the house--some Abe Lincoln Assassination-style theater balconies. These are, however, reserved for immediate members of the royal family. Nobody has used them in recent years, our guide noted.

Now let's go down into the box itself, where the HoC Assembly is. Directly opposite our Gallery situated close to the wall is the Speakers Chair. Like many Diets around the world, it is center stage facing the House from a high rostrum. From the sides of the rostrum stretch wings of seats for Cabinet members and VIPs. A storey below the rostrum sit four corralled Diet secretaries (who retire through stairways under the rostrum), and radiating out in a half-circle from there at the same level are all the Councillor's seats--the newcomers sitting up front and the most-elected Councillors in back.

Allowing the Assembly's atmosphere to sink in from our nosebleed seats, I realized just how odd the trappings of a government are. Blandly visible on color-bleaching Japanese TV cameras, the wooden rostrum and backgrounds (using solid wood rarely seen in modern Japanese buildings) is in the flesh a lovely deep mahogany color. Offset by trim and wall curtains in vermillion and gold, the color scheme is remotely redolent of a David Lynch Blue Velvet movie set, filmed in technicolor. Even the Councillor seat covers reflect the overly hot, saturated colors, radiating a sweaty ornate plushness and antiquity. This Elvis-on-Velveting style is in direct contrast with most modern Japanese cool, spartan, and sterile furnishings.

The HoC's layout is even more surreal. In a world where "seiji wa imeiji" ("politics is image"--a slogan I concocted), it is very clear who was designed to be in charge. Not the Speaker. Center-stage behind the rostrum, another step up and nestled in a curtained Chysanthemum-crowned nave inlaid in the wall, is the Imperial Chair, sitting supreme. Since this nave does not exist in the Lower House, I bet it is a relic of prewar Japan, when the Upper House was more like the British House of Lords in both selection and legislative power. Perhaps SCAP let this sit in exchange for subordinating the HoC to the misleadingly-named Lower House, where the real Diet decisions are now made. Still, the image projected was of monarchy over democracy, and I wondered how (or even if) people dealt with the symbolism. Maybe much the same way the Brits do with the Queen opening their Parliament.

The cop had finished his spiel and our time was up. Exiting the Gallery and moving downstairs, we were escorted through wide corridors, doors on each side housing political party headquarters and discussion rooms, where people talk turkey and fill rooms with smoke. The tour then stopped at the Imperial Waiting Rooms, where more surprises were on offer.

The Emperor's Room (you can't go in but there is a plexiglass barrier to peer through) is pretty empty--just one reasonably elegant writing desk and chair centered within a cavern of Japanese-art-laden walls. The flavor and trim is close to royal European, though the walls this time were ornately done up in recessive colors. The room had no clutter, nothing to relax on or hide behind, and thus was not a place to be lived in--more (like many Imperial Agency outfittings) a place to be on display. Adjacent is a second room for other royalty, but it was not on the tour. If I heard our guide right, he said, "Out of all the costs of constructing the Diet buildings, ten percent was allocated to these Waiting Rooms alone." The artisans got a good deal, I thought.

There's more. Across the hall from the doorway to the Emperor's room is a wide stairwell cutting the Diet Building in two, descending from the back to the front, with a lovely archway dome stretching up to three storeys above. "This is the Imperial Entranceway. Only the Emperor or dignified guests may pass through it, or step on the red carpet." However, I could see that the landing at the very bottom, leading to limousines outside, crossed large hallways where traffic would have to pass from one House to the other. So to help people avoid putting a foot wrong, the regal carpet was covered perpendicularly by a regular carpet and fenced off on either side, like an old-style British railway crossing gate.

We then proceeded past an even more important place. "The Imperial Toilet." Its door was shut tight--not even even a plexiglass peep. I would have loved to see what a Royal John looks like. So would the Emperor, perhaps. Our guide noted: "Nobody has ever used it, not even once, in the history of the Diet."

I realized just how differently public facilities and tax monies were allocated in countries with strikingly different histories. I was used to the atmospheres of places I had hitherto toured, like the US Capitol Building--with its strict disavowal of any monarchist leanings (Washington even rejected an offer of an inheritable government position). Here, I felt confused by all this care taken for The Emperor in an avowedly democratic parliament.

We then walked over to an several-storeys-tall atrium directly under the Diet's grey stone tower. A lovely area, it itself is worth the tour. I noticed that the ceiling stops far short of the crowning ziggurat. What's up there? "A big tower ballroom, once used for parties. It has fallen into disuse." Pity. I would have loved to see the view.

From there we were disgorged into the courtyard to enjoy rather colorless gardens which were enjoying the last of that beautiful afternoon. I was going to be in the area a little longer, so I asked about coming back to take the House of Representatives tour.

Guide: "You're out of luck. There won't be any tours for a while--the Diet Plenary Sessions officially restart in two days. But you can sit in on the sessions if you want."



SEPTEMBER 27, 2001, 8AM

Thus occasioned my dropping by the Diet Building again first thing in the morning. Although another lovely day, the atmosphere was even less relaxing. Across the street from the back of the Diet, protesters were megaphoning and placarding against PM Koizumi's recent trip to the US, where he had agreed to support US anti-terrorism drives financially if not militarily. Hawkish counterpoints were expressed by rough-speaking Japanese behind police cordons. Handouts from the loudspeakers made it clear that they considered Self Defense Force deployment for rescue or refueling missions to be unconstitutional. Their voices would provide the backdrop for the day's events.

I entered the Upper House again, whose Plenary Session would start at 10AM, and checked in the same way as the day before (it was easier--the police even remembered me). From the Gallery we saw Sangiin Diet Members file in. People were jovial--exchanging business cards, telling jokes, laughing things up like at an enkai of old friends. I saw famous TV commentator Masuzoe-san (who singlehandedly received over a million and a half votes--more than any other individual candidate, according to the Kokkai Binran), pro wrestler Ohnita, and Conservative Party Chair Ohgi. Almost all of the 242 members were present, and once the Speaker kicked off the 15-minute proceedings, things went smoothly and kept pace with the party atmosphere. By the end, I felt the Upper House was the teething ground for more serious politicians, who eventually shoot for seats in the more powerful and therefore somber Lower House.

One minute inside watching the House of Representatives' Plenary Session would confirm this. Waiting a few hours outside while the Emperor formally opened the Diet (the public is not allowed to witness the proceedings from the Gallery without a special invitation, but I did get to see it on closed-circuit TV), a busload of excited old fogies soon joined us to fill the Gallery waiting room. Here there were no Representative seating charts ("security risk", I was told), and the police were visibly on alert. So were the Representatives when they filed in to their Assembly seats.

Famous faces abounded. On one bloc in the right-hand semicircle sat a wedge of Communist Party reps, topped off by the crust of consummate politician (and all-around lonely-looking guy) Fuwa-san, flanked by the JCP's new bureaucrat-faced leader Shii-san. In the back of adjacent wedges sat Doi Takako and Ozawa Ichiro, looking no different than on TV. The other faces I would have loved to see were buried in the crust below our Gallery--Miyazawa, Mori, Hosokawa, Hatoyama, Murayama, and Hashimoto (though I did get to see Hashimoto when I was buying Chrysanthemum-engraved name card holders at the local Diet Gift Shoppe--he walked past cheerily waving to all the baachan on our tour). And there was the newly-elected Obuchi Yuuko, daughter of the late eponymous PM, looking green and lonely up front near the Speaker's Rostrum.

But here came the catch of the day. In walked PM Koizumi, flanked by his cabinet (yes, Tanaka Makiko was there), who very presidentially began to report on his trip to the US. He behaved like an executive should, laying out the next policy goals for his administration. He delineated his stance on terrorism and how he would be supporting the US in its efforts to curtail it. Predictably, there were shouts from the floor, like "senso hantai" from the Communists, but the atmosphere was certainly businesslike, and since this was more report than debate, the catcalls were fewer than I witnessed when touring the British Parliament. Things wrapped up on schedule. In the end, I felt Koizumi did his job well, and I was looking forward to seeing more of him.

I would do so on TV that night, and I was quite proud that I had seen live the statements that were being taken up, dissected, and blown up by the media for projections of the future. I was also glad to have been at the right place at the right time, putting personalities and atmosphere on places I had only hitherto seen in soundbite.


In conclusion, I recommend to anyone, citizen or non-, to go on down and check out the Japanese Diet. Even if readers have no suffrage rights, what happens in this--our, my--country is worth a hands-on viewing. I accept the caveat that the most important national policies are drawn up by bureaucrats, not politicians (in fact, the Diet has been derided as a glorified debate club by many analysts). Nevertheless, it is an exciting time to watch the Japanese legislative branch at work, now with more personable and ambitious politicians in authority.

If anything, this visit showed me once again that my longtime interest in politics was hardly useless. In the past, my undergraduate degree in Government had been dissed by the layperson as a study of the corrupt and prevaricating, and belittled by my classmates as a fallback major for people who couldn't stomach the harder sciences. Still, it has enabled me to walk in and better understand the legislative dynamic, which is what people, who wish to question authority and have oversight capacities, must do to keep democracy healthy. Even without this lofty goal, a visit to the Japanese Diet will still give you enough to write home about.

Arudou Debito
November 9, 2001

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Copyright 2001, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan