The hidden power of the Komeito over Japanese politics – Analysis – Eurasia Review


By Moez Hayat and Ryan Ashley *

The recent election to the House of Representatives in Japan marked Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s first major test. While its ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a modest loss of seats, it nonetheless emerged strong enough to govern on its own.

As media attention has focused on the implications of this partial reprimand of the ruling PLD, its oft-overlooked coalition partner Komeito has increased its presence in the lower house from 29 to 32 seats. This small but significant electoral victory demonstrates that the Komeito remains a powerful actor in Japanese politics.

Komeito is a religiously inspired political force unique in Japanese politics. The party has its origins as a political arm of the Soka Gakkai, a new Buddhist-revivalist sect known for its evangelical views. In 1970, the forerunner of the current party distanced himself from Soka Gakkai to quell criticism that he violated the strict post-war separation between church and state in Japan. Yet almost all of the Komeito representatives are members of the Soka Gakkai, and allegations of control by religious leader Daisaku Ikeda continue to be made against the Komeito. Today, the party gets most of its votes from its elderly and predominantly middle-class religious base, which represents around 13% of the entire electoral population in the last election.

Although it is only a fraction of the size of the LDP, the structure of the LDP-Komeito partnership suggests an interesting mode of power sharing. Under the coalition agreement, the Komeito does not contest the vast majority of PLD seats and encourages Soka Gakkai members to vote for the ruling party. Adam P Liff estimates that in the 2014 election, the deal helped nearly a quarter of PLD candidates in single-member districts to win their seats.

What does Komeito get in return for this cooperation? Despite its considerable potential influence, the LDP has reserved only one cabinet, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MILT), for Komeito since 2012. The MILT is the second government employer after the ministry. Defense and implements one-third of Japan’s legal orders, making the post an important political prize. The MILT manages the country’s huge transport budget, which gives the Komeito significant influence over local government.

But perhaps Komeito’s greater power is as a defender of greater Japanese autonomy in foreign relations. When it comes to security, the Komeito remains a rare force within the government advocating cooperation with China, is skeptical of increased defense spending and acts as a bulwark of anti-nuclear sentiment. Despite its alliance with the LDP, the party remains opposed to any significant amendment to Article 9 of Japan’s “pacifist” constitution. Even the possible compromise “reinterpretation” of Article 9 in 2014 met with opposition from the Komeito leadership, who ultimately watered down the proposed wording of the bill.

The Komeito is best understood as a traditionalist palliative that reigns among those in the PLD concerned by the rise of China and favorable to enhanced cooperation in matters of security with Japan’s main ally, the United States. As such, Komeito is a powerful partner for LDP factions who would rather push for minor reforms to the welfare system than engage in a broader restructuring of the Japanese social contract.

One example is Kishida’s victory in the controversial LDP leadership race against popular Foreign Minister Taro Kono. Kishida has led the moderate Kochikai faction since 2012, one of the main factions supporting the preservation of Article 9. It is no coincidence that Kishida’s political mentor, Makoto Koga, was instrumental in forming Komeito in coalition with the PLD.

In light of the Komeito’s role in supporting the current political alignment, reform supporters will need to look beyond the PLD and its electoral base of aging retirees. There is room for a common cause between the reformist PLD factions and a set of reformist parties like Yuriko Koike’s “Tokyoites First” and the Osaka-centered “Japan Innovation Party”. These regionalist parties are attached to a fundamental questioning of the Japanese economy, as well as to an increasingly internationalist and muscular defense policy compared to the current coalition of traditionalists of the Komeito and the PLD.

The strength of the Komeito in recent elections consolidated its authority within the coalition. If, as some predict, the LDP leadership again becomes a “revolving door” of prime ministers, the party will become more dependent on the Komeito to stay in power. Observers can expect Kishida to avoid tough debates over security policy, increase spending on social protection, and only consider limited social reforms to keep Komeito happy.

The Komeito’s influence on foreign policy suggests that Tokyo will be relatively restrained in its response to an increasingly assertive China. Any coalition government is likely to be critical of nuclear policy, skeptical of any significant increases in defense spending, protector of Japanese autonomy, and in favor of maintaining diplomatic contacts with Beijing. This does not bode well for those in Washington who expect Japan to contain a rising China, provided Komeito remains in the driver’s seat of Japanese political discourse.

* About the authors:

  • Moez Hayat is Fulbright Fellow and Visiting Fellow at the Academy of Brunei Studies, University of Brunei Darussalam.
  • Ryan Ashley is a doctoral candidate at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum


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