The Komeito’s Curious Journey
Established 50 years ago as the political arm of Japan’s largest popular religious movement, the Komeito owes its longevity to a loyal, well-organized base and the ideological flexibility needed to maintain advantageous alliances. Katsuyuki Yakushiji traces the Komeito’s journey from a left-leaning, pacifist minority party to a member of a conservative ruling coalition and discusses the dilemma it now faces as a result.
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The face of Japanese party politics has changed dramatically over the past two decades. More than half of the nine political parties currently holding seats in the House of Representatives were formed within the past 10 years. Moreover, only three of those nine parties have a history spanning 50 years. They are, in order of age, the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the New Komeito, or NKP. All three benefit from organizational strength and a large nationwide membership. But only the NKP draws its membership and support from a specific religious sect.
Since 1999, moreover, this unique party has played a pivotal role in national politics as the LDP’s faithful ally and junior coalition partner—notwithstanding significant policy differences between the two parties. Today, as security policy takes a sharp turn to the right under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the NKP finds itself at a major crossroads.
Moving Toward the Center
The NKP’s parent organization and loyal base is the Soka Gakkai, a Nichiren Buddhist lay movement that spread rapidly through Japan during the 1950s and 1960s. Soka Gakkai established a political section in 1960 and in 1964—just 50 years ago—and converted that unit into a nominally independent political party, the Komeito, or Clean Government Party. In 1967 the Komeito burst onto the national scene by grabbing 25 House of Representatives seats in its very first general election. (At the time, the lower house had multiseat constituencies, which allowed smaller parties to secure seats without winning the majority of votes in any district.)
Calling itself “the party of welfare and peace," the Komeito took its place alongside the Japan Socialist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, and others in the left-leaning anti-LDP opposition. Like the JSP, it opposed the Japan-US Security Treaty and maintained that the Self-Defense Forces violated Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
However, the Komeito was not a party of rigid ideologues. As it established a firm foothold in national politics, it gradually moved toward a more pragmatic, centrist stance, and by the early 1980s, it had formally recognized the constitutionality of the SDF and acknowledged the necessity of the Japan-US Security Treaty.
Driving this shift was a cooperative strategy that originated at the local level. The Komeito had quickly established a major presence in the nation’s prefectural assemblies, and in many cases these local Komeito politicians were joining forces with their LDP counterparts in hopes of influencing policies with a direct impact on people’s lives. This trend gradually filtered up and influenced party strategy at the national level. The LDP and the Komeito began to find more and more common ground, and their relationship gradually shifted from an adversarial one to a more cooperative one, both in the Diet and during election campaigns.
Cultivating Cross-Party Ties
Within the LDP, the powerful faction led by Kakuei Tanaka led the way in cultivating cooperative relations with the Komeito. In July 1972, shortly after Tanaka formed his first cabinet, Komeito Secretary General Yoshikatsu Takeiri traveled to China and conferred at length with Premier Zhou Enlai regarding the prospects for normalization of relations between Japan and China. Returning to Japan, Takeiri relayed the content of those talks to Prime Minister Tanaka in detail. Apparently Takeiri helped convince Tanaka that Beijing was sincere in its desire to establish diplomatic relations with Tokyo and thereby helped lay the groundwork for Tanaka’s visit to China and the subsequent normalization of ties. From that time on, the Komeito enjoyed a special relationship with Tanaka and his faction—the LDP’s largest—and was thus able to play an insider’s role in government affairs despite its nominal status as an opposition party.
All that changed in 1993. With public support for the ruling party at a low ebb in the wake of a series of financial scandals involving top LDP officials, Ichiro Ozawa, a Tanaka protégé renowned for his fundraising prowess and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, bolted the LDP with 50-odd followers following a vote of no confidence against the cabinet of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. Ozawa formed the Japan Renewal Party and succeeded in building a coalition from a fractious collection of minority parties, headed by Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. A key member of this coalition was the Komeito.
The coalition collapsed in less than a year, after the JSP defected over security policy, allowing the LDP to return to power once again. Komeito politicians faced a choice: ally itself with the LDP or trust Tanaka protégé Ozawa to engineer another coup and shepherd them to a position of power. The issue created a schism in the Komeito, with the party’s lower house politicians opting to merge into the New Frontier Party, a new group centered on Ozawa. This proved to be a mistake, as the NFP dissolved after just three years. In 1998 the divided Komeito reunited, adding the word “New” to its English name.
It was not long before opportunity knocked again. In the summer of 1998, the LDP suffered a major setback in the House of Councillors election and lost its upper house majority. Faced with the prospect of ongoing legislative gridlock, the LDP leadership set about forging a coalition with the New Komeito. In 1999, as a result of intensive backroom negotiations, there emerged a three-party coalition consisting of the LDP, the NKP, and Ozawa’s Liberal Party. The Liberal Party quit the coalition in 2000, but the LDP-NKP bloc held onto its majority until the Democratic Party of Japan took over in 2009. The LDP and NKP remained partners while in the opposition and took the helm again as a coalition in 2012.
Anatomy of an Alliance
The partnership between the LDP and the NKP would never have endured these 15 years had it not conferred important benefits on both sides. The biggest attraction from the LDP’s viewpoint was the NKP’s proven ability to mobilize 7-8 million Soka Gakkai voters (based on the number of votes the NKP receives in the lower house’s 11 proportional-representation block districts). This consistent level of support is a testimony to the strength of the Soka Gakkai organization. Electoral cooperation with the NKP nets the LDP an average of 20,000–30,000 extra votes in each of the single-seat constituencies (300 of the lower house’s 480 seats under the current electoral system) where it fields candidates. Without the NKP’s backing, the LDP could lose close to 100 of its 294 lower house seats.
Electoral cooperation is at least as important to the NKP, which would have no hope of winning in today’s winner-take-all single-seat districts were it obliged to go solo. By coordinating with the LDP, it is able to elect 8–10 candidates in these local districts, in addition to the 20–25 NKP candidates elected from multiseat block districts by proportional representation. As a member of the ruling camp, moreover, the NKP gets a limited share of cabinet positions and a seat at the policymaking table. This, in turn, strengthens the party’s position among voters and keeps the organization strong.
Papering Over Policy Conflicts
The LDP has benefited immeasurably from the NKP’s cooperation in the Diet as well. In many cases NKP votes have allowed the LDP to steer bills through both houses of the Diet even in the face of stiff resistance from the opposition and maintain control over the legislative process.
From an ideological standpoint, this cooperation cannot always have been easy for the NKP. As noted above, the Komeito originally identified itself as a pacifist, anti-authoritarian “party of the people.” Like the other left-leaning opposition parties of the time, it swore to defend the war-renouncing Constitution, opposed the Japan-US Security Treaty, and regarded the Self-Defense Forces as unconstitutional. To some degree, this ideological orientation reflected the anti-establishment roots of the Komeito’s parent organization, the Soka Gakkai, whose founders had been targets of a harsh government crackdown during World War II.
As a coalition partner, however, the NKP found itself supporting policies that many would consider incompatible with these founding principles. Under the cabinet of Keizo Obuchi (1998–2000), the NKP helped ensure passage of a law officially establishing the hinomaru as the national flag and “Kimigayo” as the national anthem (a step previously opposed by the Komeito and others on the grounds that both the flag and the song had strong militaristic associations), as well as legislation permitting limited wiretapping by government agencies for the purpose of criminal investigations.
In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the NKP worked with the cabinet of Jun’ichiro Koizumi to pass legislation allowing the deployment of SDF units to Iraq and the Indian Ocean to support the US war on terror. Finally, in 2013, it helped the government push through a tough and extremely unpopular state secrets law (Act on Protection of Specified Secrets). The Komeito of the 1960s and 1970s—with its emphasis on democracy, peace, and human rights—would never have dreamed of supporting policies so clearly geared to augmenting the power of the state.
Why has the NKP been willing to subordinate its own policies to its partnership with the LDP? The answer is closely tied to the Komeito’s unique electoral base. Thanks to the organizational support of the Soka Gakkai, the NKP is virtually guaranteed a certain number of votes in each general election, regardless of political circumstances. But its close association with the Soka Gakkai also limits its potential growth. In opinion polls, the NKP consistently ranks alongside the JCP as Japan’s most “toxic” party—that is, a party for which one would not vote under any circumstances.
This means that the NKP lacks the capacity to attract new supporters regardless of its policies or its campaigning prowess. Even in an election with a higher-than-usual turnout, it is unlikely to attract swing voters in significant numbers. As a result, it has virtually no hope of ever winning a Diet majority and seizing control of government on its own. What it can do, however, is leverage its reliable vote-getting capacity to secure a supporting role for itself. This is the strategy the NKP has adopted, and to pursue it, the party has been obliged to maintain maximum flexibility in matters of policy and ideology.
The Limits of Ideological Flexibility?
Today, however, the NKP is facing an issue that could strain its ideological flexibility to the limit. The issue pertains to the government’s official interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” and further that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
For decades, the Japanese government has interpreted this to mean that, while Japan may maintain the minimum forces needed for its own self-defense, it may not constitutionally participate in collective self-defense, meaning that its forces may not engage in combat operations in support of an ally under attack. In this way successive cabinets have sought to reassure the world that Japan would never revert to the militarism of the past.
Now, however, Prime Minister Abe is intent on changing that interpretation. Abe wants to lift the prohibition on the right of collective self-defense on the grounds that advances in military technology have made it impossible for any country to protect its own security individually. Public sentiment has begun to favor such a change, thanks in large part to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests and missiles launches, as well as China’s military buildup and confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Senkaku Islands. Abe has stated his intent to adopt a cabinet resolution altering the government’s interpretation of Article 9 and push through legislation enabling collective self-defense operations within the year.
This poses a dilemma for the NKP. Notwithstanding its ideological flexibility over the years, the party has consistently opposed any revision of Article 9 or any change in its interpretation. Its position on the right of collective self-defense is unequivocal. When I interviewed NKP President Natsuo Yamaguchi last year, he clearly conveyed his disapproval of Abe’s plan, warning that “the new laws could lack legitimacy if their only legal basis is a unilateral declaration by the government that it’s changing its interpretation of the Constitution.” Abe’s initiative has been the subject of much criticism within the NKP, not to mention the Soka Gakkai. But a rupture with the LDP over the issue could jeopardize the government’s entire agenda, including its all-important economic revitalization strategy.
The NKP has skillfully been navigating treacherous political waters to secure its place as a member of the ruling camp. Now the Article 9 issue is forcing the party and its base to take stock. Will the NKP stand up to Prime Minister Abe, or will it put its relationship with the LDP ahead of its principles, as it has so often in the past? A half-century into its curious journey, the Komeito is approaching a crucial fork in the road.