Analysis

The Small Pacifist Party That Could Shape Japan’s Future

The Komeito party will be a key player in the new government.

By , a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, and , an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at North Carolina State University.
A masked Natsuo Yamaguchi attaches a paper flower to the name of a winning candidate on a large white board.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi attaches a paper flower to the name of a winning candidate in Japan’s lower house election at the party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Oct. 31. Miho Ikeya/Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida returned to work this week with a new mandate after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito won a majority of 293 seats in Japan’s 465-seat House of Representatives. Kishida was the big winner in Sunday’s elections, limiting the LDP’s losses to only 15 seats. It had been bracing to lose dozens more. However, Komeito also had a good night, increasing its total by three seats to 32.

It’s easy to overlook Komeito. After all, the party’s parliamentary presence seems marginal; with 261 seats of its own, the LDP could control the House of Representatives independently. But after more than 20 years of partnership with the LDP, Komeito has become an indispensable player in Japan’s government.

And as the Kishida government weighs whether to boost defense spending, expand Japan’s role in regional crises, and enable its armed forces to strike targets in foreign countries, Komeito, which was founded on a platform of advancing world peace and has enjoyed decades of close ties with the Chinese government, will play a significantly greater role than its numbers would suggest.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida returned to work this week with a new mandate after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito won a majority of 293 seats in Japan’s 465-seat House of Representatives. Kishida was the big winner in Sunday’s elections, limiting the LDP’s losses to only 15 seats. It had been bracing to lose dozens more. However, Komeito also had a good night, increasing its total by three seats to 32.

It’s easy to overlook Komeito. After all, the party’s parliamentary presence seems marginal; with 261 seats of its own, the LDP could control the House of Representatives independently. But after more than 20 years of partnership with the LDP, Komeito has become an indispensable player in Japan’s government.

And as the Kishida government weighs whether to boost defense spending, expand Japan’s role in regional crises, and enable its armed forces to strike targets in foreign countries, Komeito, which was founded on a platform of advancing world peace and has enjoyed decades of close ties with the Chinese government, will play a significantly greater role than its numbers would suggest.

Komeito is affiliated with a religious organization, setting it apart from other Japanese political parties. It was created in 1964 by the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, which exploded from a few thousand to millions of adherents in the decades following World War II, attracting converts in large part from the migrants swelling Japan’s rapidly growing cities.

The religion has gained notoriety for its hard-sell proselytizing, exclusivist beliefs, and reverence for its leader Daisaku Ikeda, whom members regard unequivocally as their prime authority. Created initially to advance the religion’s interests (thus attracting criticism for violating postwar norms on the separation of church and state), Komeito evolved into a more conventional party representing the economic interests of housewives, shopkeepers, and other important Soka Gakkai constituencies. It has been the consummate political survivor, first allying with parties on the left and then securing a lasting place in government after joining forces with the conservative LDP in 1999.

The partnership between the LDP and Komeito was an unlikely one, and few would have expected it to endure as long as it has. After all, there is little policy overlap between them. Komeito focuses primarily on policies that appeal to its key constituency: Soka Gakkai’s Married Women’s Division. These have included maintaining a reduced consumption tax rate on household staples, advocating for reduced schooling fees, and offering child allowances. While these do not necessarily conflict with the LDP’s economic and social policy goals, Komeito’s focus on delivering benefits to its constituents has made it a dogged negotiating partner.

The most significant differences between the two parties are on security policy. At its founding, Komeito was committed to absolute pacifism, and in its early years it rejected the constitutionality of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. As the party transformed into a more conventional political player, it softened its opposition to these pillars of Japanese national security.

In coalition with the LDP, Komeito has tended to follow the larger party’s lead on security legislation. It voted to dispatch armed forces in support of allied operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in favor of the security laws of 2015, which, following a 2014 reinterpretation of the constitution, enabled the Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right of “collective self-defense” to come to the aid of their American allies.

But Komeito has not merely been a rubber stamp for the LDP. The party’s leaders have often referred to their role in the coalition as a “brake” on the LDP’s more hawkish ambitions. For example, Komeito forced (now former) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to accept that collective self-defense would be permitted only in a limited number of circumstances. It has also thwarted the push by the LDP conservatives to replace Article 9, the postwar constitution’s famed “peace clause,” with more permissive language.

Why has the LDP remained wedded to its coalition with a party that has been explicitly committed to resisting the ambitions of the ruling party’s increasingly predominant right wing? Ultimately they have achieved a political symbiosis that is particularly well adapted to Japan’s two-tier electoral system. Under that system, voters cast one ballot for a candidate in single-member constituencies and one for a political party in 11 regional proportional representation blocks. The two parties have agreed not to run candidates against one another in single-member districts. In exchange, Komeito directs its supporters to vote for LDP candidates, while the LDP is expected to instruct its supporters in some districts to vote for Komeito.

The secret to this arrangement is Soka Gakkai’s vote-gathering power. While Komeito’s total seat count in the Diet (Japan’s parliament) remains modest, it punches above its weight by mobilizing its religious supporters for every election, from village assemblies up to the Diet. The party also benefits from low overall turnout among the broader Japanese public: When just over half of eligible voters in Japan head to the polls, a reliable bloc of Soka Gakkai supporters wields significant influence. And although Komeito no longer pursues explicitly religious objectives, Soka Gakkai members have consistently treated campaigning for Komeito and its LDP allies as a component of their religious practice. In exchange for securing votes for LDP candidates—a crucial factor in tight races—Komeito retains a seat at the table in the government.

However, with the election behind them, the LDP-Komeito partnership will be stressed as never before. There may be no more urgent issue facing Kishida than what to do about Japan’s relationship with China. While fears of the “China threat” have been barely concealed in Japanese politics for years, China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, revelations about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the worsening military balance across the Taiwan Strait have emboldened proponents of a harder line toward China and quieted advocates of engagement.

Few supporters of engagement are as committed as Komeito. Of all parties in the Diet, Komeito enjoys the strongest and most stable relationship with China, and Komeito and Soka Gakkai leaders have forged intimate connections with senior Chinese leaders. Diplomatic normalization between Japan and China depended to a large extent on efforts by the Komeito politician Yoshikatsu Takeiri, whose negotiations with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai served as the basis for the formal agreement the two countries signed in September 1972. And both the religious group and its affiliated party have continued to keep lines of communication open between Tokyo and Beijing even when diplomatic relations have been strained.

A China gap between the two parties was on full display in their 2021 campaign manifestos. While Komeito’s included planks calling on China to account openly for Beijing’s violations of human rights and civil liberties, and criticized China’s violation of international law in the East and South China seas, these planks were carefully phrased; the overall thrust of Komeito’s China policy is restoring stable relations between the two neighbors, noting their history of “overcoming various disagreements.”

By contrast, the only explicit reference to China in the LDP’s manifesto is as a burgeoning military power threatening to change the status quo by force. China is also the looming threat behind a lengthy section on “economic security,” the byword for the LDP’s growing focus on protecting Japan’s advanced technologies from theft and reducing dependence on China for critical manufactured products. In short, whereas Komeito wants to restore diplomacy and person-to-person exchanges as soon as possible, the LDP’s conservatives view China’s advances as requiring a thorough and prompt upgrading of Japan’s approach to national defense.

The tensions between the parties were plainly visible leading up to the election. Responding to a plank in the LDP manifesto calling for raising defense spending above the long-standing 1 percent of GDP level “with an eye toward the NATO standard 2 percent of GDP,” on election night Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi allowed that while defense spending may increase somewhat, “I don’t think a sudden doubling will win the understanding of the public.” Yamaguchi also criticized as outmoded calls from the LDP, including from Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, to conduct a review of whether Japan should acquire capabilities to strike “enemy bases” to deter or punish missile attacks on Japan.

Accordingly, Kishida will have to find a balance between his LDP, particularly its right wing, and its coalition partner. Yet significant as the gap on China between the two parties appears, it does not necessarily mean the coalition is at risk of breaking. Perhaps the main lesson from their two-decade-old partnership is that both parties have been committed to compromise.

Indeed, it is precisely Komeito’s willingness to be flexible that gives it power. It is willing to negotiate with the LDP but often wants to remind the LDP that it must be mindful of public opinion when pursuing potentially controversial policy changes. As a result, the outcome of the coming debates on Japan’s China and defense policies, which will likely wait until after upper house elections next summer, will most likely reflect a painstakingly crafted consensus between the two parties.

The coalition between the LDP and Komeito may not last forever. When Soka Gakkai founder Ikeda dies—he turns 94 in January—it could lead the movement’s vote-gatherers to reconsider whether Komeito still serves the religion’s interests and whether electioneering is in fact a necessary component of their practice. Soka Gakkai members prevaricating on electioneering would make Komeito a less dependable partner for the LDP. Meanwhile, the LDP’s conservatives may become less tolerant of the party’s more pacifist partner as the regional security environment worsens, leading them to entertain alternative partners or to try their luck without a coalition partner.

Nevertheless, for the time being it remains likely that the LDP will seek to keep Komeito within the coalition for as long as it helps LDP candidates retain their seats. And as long as Komeito is included in the LDP-led government, applying the brakes on the ruling party’s more ambitious policies, it may be more important to pay attention to what its leaders say than to some of the more provocative remarks of their LDP colleagues.

Tobias Harris is a senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress and the author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan. Twitter: @observingjapan

Levi McLaughlin is an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies  at North Carolina State University. He is co-author of Komeito: Politics and Religion in Japan and author of Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan. Twitter: @mclaughlin_levi

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