Hi! It’s konkaz (@konkazuk) here.
In this article, we are going to review “separation of powers” as well as learning some English vocabularies in the area.
We must have heard the phrase “separation of powers” during the lesson of social studies or civics while we were junior high school or possibly high school students.
I vaguely remember the phrase, but if I was asked to explain what it is to someone, then… I would be totally hopeless.
But not to worry.
Let us review what it is here and grab some related English vocabularies while we are at it.
What is the “Separation of powers”?
Let’s just bring back our memories from the past here.
Even if the phrase “separation of powers” does not ring a bell, I presume you will get an image of it, when you hear some terms of Japanese political system such as “Rippo”, “Shiho” and “Gyosei”.
Because these three institutions that run our country have existed as separate organs since we were aware of our surroundings, we just simply take it granted and do not even think deeply about it.
However, in reality, we are actually able to lead our everyday life with a certain degree of freedom and human rights owing to the fact that these three institutions are being administered by separate organs.
Anyway, let us keep in mind the following three English vocabularies, which will be the keys to read this article.
🔹Rippo ＝ legislation [ledʒɪˈsleɪʃən]
🔹Shiho = judiciary [dʒuːˈdɪʃəri]
🔹Gyosei = executive [ɪɡˈzekjʊtɪv]
* “Rippo” is also called “administration”.
…and the places where these three are put into practice are called…
“Rippo” ➡︎ 「Gikai」
“Parliament (UK), Congress (USA), Diet (Japan)”
“Shiho” ➡︎ 「Hotei」
“Gyosei” ➡︎ 「Seifu」
Now, why does the fact that these three organs are being operated separately relate to the freedom and rights we currently possess?
That’s because each of these territories has its own “power.”
I believe the word “power” generally reminds us of the phrases such as…
“sources of power”
“be full of power”
and so on… and they are used in the sense of “energy”,
the ”power” is referred to as “authority” in this article’s context.
To give some examples of the phrase that includes the word “power”, which is used in the sense of “authority”, they will be…
a man of power
a power struggle
The word “state” can be associated with the image of the “states of America”, however, the vocabulary is often used in the sense of a “nation” or an “organised political community” in some political subjects, so it’s good to keep this in mind.
Anyway, the “powers” that are being possessed by three branches of government can be expressed as…
🔹legislative power = “rippo-ken”
🔹judicial power = “shiho-ken”
🔹executive power = “gyosei-ken” or “shikko-ken”
(an adjective form of “executive” is the same as its noun form.)
When you see the words that end with “ken” such as “senkyo-ken” (=“right to vote” in English) , you might think of the “right” to do something, but the word “ken” in “sanken bunritsu” (=”separation of powers” in English) refers to “power/authority”.
Therefore, from the top, they are… “the power to make laws”, “the power to decide and pronounce a judgement” and “the power to enforces the law and policies”.
And in the sense of dividing the power of governing the country among these three branches and operating separately, “sanken bunritsu” is called…
“separation of powers”
Incidentally, the vocabulary “exercise” is often applied when some kind of implementation of “power” is mentioned in the sentence.
I guess we tend to associate the word “exercise” with the image of “moving body” or “practicing something”, but it will be useful to keep the above-mentioned meaning in mind for the future.
Anyway, here, I have featured some sentences that include the word “exercise”, which is being used in the sense of “to implement”, therefore, please read them aloud.
The legislative, executive and judicial powers of government shouldn’t be exercised by the same person.
The judge exercised the powers of his office.
The landlady may exercise her right to review the rent.
The Prime Minister heads the government but exercises no statutory powers.
What is life like without “separation of powers” ?
I mentioned earlier that we were able to lead our everyday life with a certain degree of freedom and human rights because the “power” to run a country has been divided into three branches and each of them is being exercised by a separate organ in a government.
So that means… if the power has not been divided like this, our life would have been pretty much screwed up, doesn’t it?
And the situation is going to be like… “One person is able to exercise all these three powers.”
We can find out how screwed up the situation could have been by looking back on history.
In the past, “revolutions” had broken out in some countries including France, the UK, Russia, Japan and so on.
But why did people have to go through such experiences in these countries knowing that they were likely to lose their lives?
That’s because the kings and queens who were the rulers of the countries at that time were taking control of all these three powers (i.e. legislative power, executive power and judicial power), and were abusing these powers for their own sake without considering the people’s lives.
Especially in Europe, religion is essentially well-connected with politics, therefore there was such a doctrine called “The divine right of kings” in those days, and its concept which was like “kings are governing the country with their authority being derived from God, therefore they have a divine power” had been implanted in people’s mind.
Hence, it must have been like…
“Oh, no! Not again! Another crop failure! Besides this hefty tax is killing me!
…Oh, well, our king is related to God, isn’t he? So, we gotta keep it up, don’t we?”
Therefore, even though there was such an unjust pyramid-shaped system called “Feudalism” in those days, commoners worked very hard till they collapse.
And if you moan about it, then you can be facing the last day of your life.
Because the governors can take control of all three powers, they can be so conceited like “Hey, at the end of the day, I’m just like God, aren’t I?” that…
they can make laws that are convenient for themselves, using the legislative power, and use it to pass judgement on the people with the judicial power. They can also excuse those laws and collect heavy taxes from the people using the executive power.
The lives of commoners were no big deal for them therefore it was totally okay to torture or kill them.
If the commoners were to voice their complaints and rise up, he could amend the laws further to intimidate and inflict even more suffering on them.
This is something that is commonly referred to as “absolute monarchy”, isn’t it?
The monarchs in those days were “above the law” and had an absolute authority, therefore, they didn’t regard themselves as the same human beings as others.
As such an extremely unjust situation went on for years and years, and the patience of the people towards the king’s dictatorship reached its limit, they conjured up the courage to rise, took up arms and fought for their rights.They shed blood, went through thousands of deaths, and finally they succeeded in stripping away these rights from the rulers of the country.
And thanks to what they had achieved in the past, we are currently able to escape to air-conditioned Starbucks during scorching summers, sipping on a Frappuccino while studying English as well as spreading out our laptops to write some blog posts while having some hot coffees in a heated Gusto on freezing winter days.
What is the situation of the separation of powers in major developed countries?
I presume lots of people recall the name of French philosopher and jurist, “Charles-Louis de Montesquieu” as soon as they hear the term “separation of powers”.
He published “The spirit of the Laws” about 40 years before the beginning of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and it is said that his ideas were greatly influenced by British politics.
By the way, although the “separation of powers” is now adopted by various countries as a modern national system, it seems like “three powers” are not always being separated plainly in practice.
Here, I’ve picked four representative developed countries, so let’s see what is going on with “separation of powers” in each country.
The United Kingdom
Let’s begin with the UK.
To give a conclusion, three powers are not separated in the UK.
During the 17th century in England, there had been this bloody “English Civil War”, which was religious as well as political, going on between the “royalists” and the “parliamentarians” who demanded that the king open Parliament.
the “Puritan Revolution”
the “Glorious Revolution”
(together known as the “English Revolution”)
they eventually arrived at the “Bill of Rights“.
And because the new king signed the “Bill of Rights,” which was presented to Parliament in 1689, what happened was…
“absolute monarchy” ➡︎ “constitutional monarchy“
which is basically the new system that the monarchy signs government decisions but does not rule the country.
In other words, the power to govern the country was separated from the hands of the monarchy.
“However, this alone does not establish the separation of powers.”
The “British Parliament” consists of the “House of Lords” and the “House of Commons“, and a “parliamentary system” is applied to operate the government.
In a general election, the leader of the party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons becomes the “Prime Minister“, and they select Cabinet members from the Members of Parliament (MPs) to form the government and lead it.
As a result, the legislative and executive branches are effectively fused together.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that the Supreme Court was established and the “judiciary” was barely separated.
“Until then, the position of “Lord Chancellor” (a position that does not exist in Japan) had held the positions of “Speaker” of the House of Lords, “Head of the Judiciary,” and “Presiding Judge of the High Court of Justice.”
So, that means… we can say that the “judiciary” and “legislation” were closely connected until recently.
Whenever I hear the word “member of parliament”, my brain automatically associates it with “cabinet” or “executive“.
However, once I broke down the words “member of parliament” (in Japanese with Kanji characters) into “a member who participates in the country’s meetings”, I realized that they were actually part of the meetings… so they are the people from “legislation branch” (rather than from “executive branch”.
I got confused a bit, but it was due to the fact that Japan’s parliamentary system applies the same “parliamentary cabinet system” as in the UK, and is resulting in a significant overlap between legislation and executive powers.
“The Prime Minister is elected from members of parliament, i.e. the legislation branch and more than half of the cabinet members who make up the Prime Minister’s team are also selected from members of parliament.
So, it’s not unreasonable to think of members of parliament as equivalent to the executive (although it’s not entirely accurate).
“Therefore, in Japan, the structure of “separation of powers” is established by the provisions of the Japanese Constitution, but as mentioned earlier, due to the adoption of the “parliamentary cabinet system,” the “legislation” and “executive” have become interrelated.”
When it comes to France, it is the “French Revolution”.
And when it comes to the French Revolution, it’s about the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and the “guillotine”.
For those who disregarded human rights were guillotined by the people who bore a deep-rooted grudge against them.
Two years after the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” was made by the peasants that rose up in the summer of 1789, the French “separation of powers” was made concrete by the 1791 constitution.
At that time, the “legislation” was administered by the National Assembly, the “judiciary” by judges who were elected by the people, and the “executive” by the king, therefore, one of the three powers were held by the king.
However, in the following year of 1792, the monarchy was abolished and a “republic” was established, and by the 1795 constitution, the separation of powers as a republican government was established.
From the “First Republic” that began here, there have been numerous changes of government over time, and the form from when Charles de Gaulle became president in 1958 to the present day is called the “Fifth Republic”.
Like in the UK and Japan, France’s parliament is also composed of an upper house and a lower house, with the lower house (National Assembly) holding more power.”
The Prime Minister, by the way, is chosen from the lower house, and the executive power is exercised by both the Prime Minister and the President, who is elected by the popular vote. And because of this fact, the system is referred to as a “dual executive system (diarchy)”.
So, what about the separation of powers in France?
Well, the President has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and the Prime Minister has the power of veto over laws passed by the National Assembly. The judiciary also has the power to check the constitutionality of bills passed by the legislature. Therefore, it doesn’t seem like the three branches of government are neatly separated.
By the way, the word “veto” [viːtəʊ] is a noun meaning “a right to reject” or “rejection,” and a verb meaning “to reject” a proposal, bill, etc. The vocabulary is commonly used in political articles, so it’s good to keep in mind.
In the United States, a significant degree of separation of powers among the three branches of government can be seen.
Unlike Japan or the UK, which have a parliamentary system, legislative and executive powers are not fused.
“Legislation” is led by the “Congress,” “judiciary” is led by the “Federal Court,” and “executive” is led by the “President” in the United States.
The President of the United States cannot submit bills to Congress, nor can they participate in Congress.
The President have the power of “veto” over the decisions made in Congress, but even if this happens, if the decision is re-approved by a two-thirds majority in both the “Senate” and the “House of Representatives“, the bill can become law without the President’s signature.
In addition, even if the President gets worked up and says, “Hey, you! We’re going to war with you!” the decision to go to war or not is in the hands of Congress.
However, if one area of potential overlap were to be mentioned, it would be the point below…
The Vice President of the United States also serves as the “President of the Senate,” but in practice, as they are typically occupied with advising the President and persuading Congress and the public of their directions, the position of Senate President is filled by a majority party member in the Vice President’s absence.
When there is a tie in the Senate vote, the Vice President appears as the President of the Senate to cast the deciding vote.
Regarding this point, there is a sense of connection between the “executive” and “legislative” branches.
Anyway, while every country is being operated on the basis of the “separation of powers”, the reality is that there is an overlap in the roles of the branches to varying degrees,
In any case, it appears that each branch monitors one another to prevent any branch from running amok and to maintain a good balance.
Anyway, this is it for today.
Finally, if you could try to provide your own answer in English to the question “What is the separation of powers?” based on your own understanding, it will be perfect.
Thank you for reading till the end.
You can read this blog post in Japanese from the link below.
👉 三権分立を学びつつ、政治関連の英語表現を身につけよう。《英語汁 第29号》