A brief history of the Japan National Diet Building

One facet of working in the world of Japan Public Affairs is being a frequent visitor into Japan’s National Diet. The hustle-and-bustle of politics never feels closer than when you’re dining with a Councilor in the sushi restaurant in the basement of the Main Building or passing through phalanxes of megaphone-blaring protestors as you meander between the three office buildings behind the Main Building that house 722 offices, one for every Diet Member.

The National Diet Main Building kokkai-gijido is both one of Tokyo’s most recognizable buildings as well as one of the least accessible.  Since I am fortunate to have been able to walk the halls extensively over the years, first in 1982 when I was a secretary for Sen. Taro Nakayama, and henceforth later as it became a component of my business, I thought a firsthand review of the Japan National Diet Building might be interesting.

Entering

Buildings that house Parliaments, Congresses, and other such deliberative bodies around the world are commonly designed with a focus on nation branding. In the days before GDP figures and nuclear warheads, mammoth imposing buildings were one important way of showing the power, influence, and importance of a country and its government. Japan’s National Diet Building closely follows this narrative.

Designed to be massive and commanding with no expense spared, construction of the National Diet Building was so expensive that it nearly bankrupted the country during the 16 years of construction that led up to its completion in 1936. This is endemic of the strategy employed by Japan’s leadership in the prewar Showa Era with the objective of molding Japan into a world superpower.  This was the third parliamentary structure, the first two were built in the adjacent area that is now known as Hibiya Park were wooden structures that both burned to the ground in massive fires that were unfortunately commonplace in Meiji era Tokyo. The first one, in fact, burned down within a year of completion!

With this background, one of the most splendorous parts of the building is the Main Approach with the massive circular driveway. And what an entryway it is! To paraphrase a particularly apt quotation, “From the beautiful avenue of gingko trees running from Ginza to Sakuradamon, the National Diet of Japan stands on a hill keeping with the Diet’s position as the political center of the nation.

Made almost completely from Japan-sourced materials, from the dominating columns at its front, to the distinctive façade that was purposefully simplified from a previous Italian Renaissance-esque design because it looked “too Western,” the National Diet Building is a resplendent beauty of the few pre-War buildings that still exist in Tokyo.   In fact, while all of Kasumigaseki including Shinagawa all the way to Nihonbashi and beyond were an ashen heap by August 1945, the National Diet Compound and the Imperial Palace were intentionally untouched by aerial bombings that smothered Tokyo.

The massive bronze doors that guard the building’s Central Entrance are only used on a few rare occasions: the arrival of the Emperor, State Guests on official visits, and convocation day for newly elected Diet Members.  Approximately 8% of the construction cost of the entire complex was devoted to areas for exclusive use by the Emperor, and facilitating these rare special occasions.

Roll Call

Diet Members are not without their duties. Upon entering the Diet Building, they are tasked with “signing in” by pressing a button underneath their name on a large signboard. You may notice signs of age on some of the longer-serving Members’ name placards, but that is a story for a different time. Also of interest is the gilded chrysanthemum lapel badge that each Member wears: if they are not wearing the badge when signing in, they cannot enter.

While there are multiple entrances into the building, separate for Members of the House of Councilors and House of Representatives, one will find these backlit boards in predominant areas and all Diet member entrances. These are wired to ensure that any MP’s presence or absence is known throughout his or her House.

Splendor

There is nothing subdued or even remotely subtle about the building’s interior design. It is truly magnificent. The Central Hall features murals of Japan’s Four Seasons, extensive use of stained glass, and all-marble floors. In a sense it seems un-Japanese due to the flourishes of uncompromised and grand opulence throughout.  To replicate this building in the present day would be impossible: not only are the raw materials no longer in existence in enough quantity in Japan, but the master craftsmen no longer exist either.

Another interesting feature of the Central Hall are the statues that mark each of its four corners directly under the pyramid-shaped central roof. Four pedestals stand, but only three statues stand atop them. The fourth pedestal stands permanently empty as a reminder of the potential for the future.

The Chambers of the House of Representatives and House of Councilors both feature semicircular seating facing toward a main podium. The Prime Minister’s seat is notably below that of the Speaker. Yet the two houses are not completely the same: in the (Upper) House of Councilors exists an elaborate throne.  This throne is to occupied only by the Emperor, and only during the convocation ceremony.  This is because the Emperor, though constitutionally the ceremonial head of state and the symbol of the Japanese people, is restricted from participating in politics according to the Japanese Constitution.

As an aside, the Emperor of Japan is the world’s only reigning monarch bearing the title “Emperor” and is also the head of the longest surviving unbroken hereditary monarchy in human history, far surpassing even that of Egyptian pharaohs!

Combined with the always-surprising nature of debate and intrigue swirling about the place, every visit to the National Diet of Japan is one with a uniquely fresh and invigorating flavor.  There is tremendous history and tradition embellished within the walls and in the way that business is conducted in this house of democracy.  I love to give first time visitors a guided tour through it whenever I get the chance.

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