Kōmeitō Turns Fifty: A History of Political Twists and Compromises

Harano Jōji [Profile]

[2014.11.25] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

The Kōmeitō has spent the last 15 years in partnership with the Liberal Democratic Party. Taking the occasion of the party’s semicentennial, we look back on its checkered history and the challenges it now faces.

Third Oldest Postwar Party

The Kōmeitō celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on November 17, 2014. The party the previous month also marked fifteen years in partnership with the Liberal Democratic Party, which began when it formed a three-party coalition cabinet with the LDP and Liberal Party under Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō in October 1999.

The Kōmeitō is the third oldest political party in postwar Japan, after the Japanese Communist Party and the LDP. But its history has been fraught with twists and turns. From its days in centrist ground between conservative and reformist, it went on to advocate a phaseout of the Japan-US Security Treaty as an outright opposition party. In 1993 it became part of the ruling coalition in the Hosokawa Morihiro administration. After a period of standoff with the LDP it turned the relationship into one of cooperation, and finally, in recent years, it has participated in coalition governments led by the LDP.

Over the years, the Kōmeitō has also faced a number of problems that challenge its very existence. Among them are its relationship with Buddhist lay group Sōka Gakkai, its parent organization, which cuts to the issue of separation of religion and politics, and its alleged obstruction of the publication and distribution of a book critical of itself and Sōka Gakkai.

In the second Abe Shinzō cabinet the Kōmeitō, as a self-proclaimed “party of peace,” faced a tough decision regarding the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Today, given the many challenges it faces, it stands at a crossroads as to whether it can continue to garner public support as a credible party capable of fulfilling its responsibilities.

Quest for Clean Politics

The Kōmeitō held its inaugural convention on November 17, 1964, at Nihon University Hall in Ryōgoku, Tokyo. But by this time, Sōka Gakkai had already formed a faction within the Diet known as the Upper House Kōmei Group. It won its first three Diet seats—two in the national constituency and one in the Osaka constituency—on independent tickets in the fourth House of Councillors election held in July 1956. And by the end of the sixth election of July 1962, the party had increased its representation in the upper house to 15 seats.

Sōka Gakkai Honorary President Ikeda Daisaku in May 2008. © Jiji.

In May 1960, Ikeda Daisaku, at the tender age of 32, became the third president of Sōka Gakkai. In November the following year, Ikeda formed the Political Federation for Clean Government. The organization, which held as its objective the purification of politics, would three years later develop into the Kōmeitō.

The three policy pillars set forth at the Kōmeitō inaugural convention were purification of politics, parliamentary democracy, and welfare for the people. At the convention, Ikeda stressed the Kōmeitō’s stance as a party for the people; its purpose would be “to serve the people to the very end through dialogue and political struggle.”

At the same time, the Kōmeitō laid out ōbutsu myōgo (harmony between secular law and the law of the Buddha) and Buddhist democracy as founding principles. Although the separation of religion and politics is rigorously monitored today, the reasoning behind these basic principles—which were later removed as party precepts—was that the pacifism inherent in Buddhist law would serve to protect the world from war.

Gaining a Deciding Vote

It took 11 years from the 1956 House of Councillors elections, in which Sōka Gakkai won its first Diet seats, for the Kōmeitō to gain a presence in the House of Representatives. But its burgeoning growth made the party a focal point in Japanese politics, and 25 candidates won lower house seats in the January 1967 general election that followed the so-called scandal-driven “black mist” dissolution. In one great leap the Kōmeitō became the fourth largest party in the Diet after the LDP, Japan Socialist Party, and Democratic Socialist Party.

In the next general election held in December 1969, the Kōmeitō won 47 seats, replacing the DSP as the third largest party in the lower house. It came to hold the decisive casting vote in Japanese politics under the new leadership of Chairman Takeiri Yoshikatsu and Secretary-General Yano Jun’ya.

Its policy line would continue to waver, however. The Kōmeitō initially sought a centrist stance, identifying with neither conservatives nor reformists. But two years after its founding the party adopted a clear anti-LDP attitude, advocating the gradual abolition of the Japan-US Security Treaty, and grew into a full-blown opposition party.

The Kōmeitō’s identity as an opposition party grew stronger as it called for political purification in the face of corrupt money politics and other issues under the LDP’s longtime rule. Shifting from the centrist-reformist coalition government vision of 1972, it escalated its position in September 1973 to the immediate abolition of the security treaty.

Kōmeitō Chairman Takeiri Yoshikatsu (right) meets with Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei at the prime minister’s office in August 1972 after a visit to China. At left is Minister for Foreign Affairs Ōhira Masayoshi. © Jiji.

Leaning Right on Key Issues

The Kōmeitō shifted from an opposition line to a more conservative bent from its 1978 national convention onward. Chairman Takeiri voiced acceptance of the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan-US Security Treaty and made explicit the intention to promote nuclear power policy. Most importantly, the party’s approval of research into self-defense regulations in the case of national emergency, which the LDP was looking to pursue, signaled a departure from its alignment with the JSP and DSP. At the December 1981 convention it went even further, approving of “conditional constitutionality” of the Self-Defense Forces and asserting that Japan’s security alliance with the United States should be kept intact.

What the Kōmeitō envisioned at the time was a centrist coalition government with itself at the core. It is said that its conservative camp partner in this was the fledgling New Liberal Club, which Kōno Yōhei and others launched in 1976 after parting ways with the LDP.

Another factor that led the Kōmeitō to lean to the right was its focus not only on national elections but also to growing its power base in local assemblies. A prime example is the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. All 25 Kōmeitō candidates won in the July 1969 election, and the Kōmeitō overtook the JSP to become the second-ranked party. Tokyo held the authority to approve Sōka Gakkai as a religious corporation, and the Metropolitan Assembly was even said to be a life-and-death issue for the party. In short, the Kōmeitō’s advancement in local assemblies propelled it on a path to conservatism in national politics.

  • [2014.11.25]

Journalist. Former president of Japan Echo Inc.; representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation, 2011–16. Has been a political reporter, Paris correspondent, and assistant managing editor at Jiji Press, a television commentator for TBS, and a member of the Board of Councilors for the Japan Institute of International Affairs. Received the Order of the Star of Italy in 2008.

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