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Japan YouTuber Diet member's prolonged overseas absence opens can of legal worms

Takashi Tachibana, left, leader of the NHK Party, checks a vote count as "GaaSyy," who was elected to the upper house, is pictured on a screen in Tokyo's Minato Ward on July 11, 2022. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

TOKYO -- Japanese YouTuber "GaaSyy," who was elected to Japan's House of Councillors on the ticket of the NHK Party, remains overseas and has not attended Diet sessions, with reports earlier this year that he was residing in Dubai. The head of the chamber's Committee on Rules and Administration has requested that he quickly return to Japan and appear in the Diet.

    Many people may think that GaaSyy, whose real name is Yoshikazu Higashitani, should step down as a Diet member if he has no record of activities in his elected role. If he continues to remain absent it is possible that the upper house Committee on Discipline could discuss punishment including expelling him as a member of the chamber. But this is no simple matter.

    Being voted in carries a great deal of significance for any candidate, not just GaaSyy. This is because it is the will of the people, which has the greatest value in a democracy. Diet members, in principle, have immunity from arrest during Diet sessions, though they can be arrested when caught in the act of a crime or when the house approves of it. This is stipulated in Articles 50 of Japan's Constitution, which states: "Except in cases provided by law, members of both Houses shall be exempt from apprehension while the Diet is in session, and any members apprehended before the opening of the session shall be freed during the term of the session upon demand of the House."

    The name post of NHK Party representative "GaaSyy" remains on its side during a plenary session of the House of Councillors in the Diet building on Oct. 6, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Article 51 of the supreme law further stipulates: "Members of both Houses shall not be held liable outside the House for speeches, debates or votes cast inside the House."

    These constitutional stipulations are designed to protect the status of Diet members. It has been common throughout history and across the world -- not to mention in Russia -- for members of parliament to be arrested over words and actions that are unfavorable to the government. To ensure that such a thing never happens, Diet members in Japan are protected to a degree that may seem excessive at first glance.

    Regarding the expulsion of Diet members, the second clause of Article 58 of the Constitution states: "Each House shall establish its rules pertaining to meetings, proceedings and internal discipline, and may punish members for disorderly conduct. However, in order to expel a member, a majority of two-thirds or more of those members present must pass a resolution thereon." A majority of two-thirds rather than a simple majority is a high hurdle, but still, there are deep-rooted views that this stipulation should be applied with caution.

    The NHK Party says that GaaSyy is not returning to Japan because he will carry out his activities as a Diet member while living overseas. We cannot easily claim that his actions do not constitute political activities. There is a wide scope for determining what kind of activities are political. And if it turns out he is not doing his job satisfactorily, then the public has the option of voting him out in the next election.

    Some people may say they cannot understand GaaSyy's approach, but if the principles protecting Diet members were loosened without caution, the move could return to haunt the country. While it is unthinkable for the current government to unfairly arrest lawmakers, we cannot rule out the possibility of a government that could do that surfacing in Japan in the future.

    Parliamentary privileges stipulated in the Constitution act as a last line of defense to prevent the government's abuse of power.

    (Mainichi political premier editorial division)

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