Kōmeitō Turns Fifty: A History of Political Twists and CompromisesPolitics
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.
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.
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.
A Short-Lived Stint in Power
The Kōmeitō began to vacillate widely once more after the political tectonic shift of 1993, which was said to be the demise of the LDP’s hegemony. It joined the government for the first time in the LDP-free, Communist-free Hosokawa Morihiro cabinet that immediately followed the end of the LDP’s longtime rule. Kōmeitō members filled four posts: minister of posts and telecommunications, minister of labor, director-general of the Management and Coordination Agency, and director-general of the Environment Agency. But with the untimely end of the succeeding Hata Tsutomu administration in just 64 days, the Murayama Tomiichi cabinet was launched by a tripartite coalition between the LDP, JSP, and New Party Sakigake, and the Kōmeitō fell out of power.
Amid the whirlwind of political realignment, the Kōmeitō went through some hectic changes as well. In December 1994 it was disbanded and split into the Kōmei New Party and Kōmei. Only days later, the former merged with the New Frontier Party led by Ozawa Ichirō (currently president of the People’s Life Party).
Kōmeitō members fought the 1995 upper house election under the banner of the New Frontier Party, helping thwart LDP hopes of winning a single-party majority. The NFP was particularly strong in the proportional-representation constituencies, emerging as the leading party. Behind this success was major electoral assistance from Sōka Gakkai.
This turn of events brewed within the LDP a strong sense of wariness toward the Kōmeitō. Following the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyō cult in March 1995, among other factors, the LDP called for a basic law on the separation of religion and politics and even demanded that the Diet summon Ikeda to give sworn testimony. It was the dark ages of relations between the Kōmeitō and LDP.
Electoral Reform Propels Coalition with the LDP
Reconciliation with the LDP came unexpectedly soon. In December 1997 the former Kōmeitō members left the New Frontier Party due to tumult surrounding Ozawa’s management style, and in November 1998 offshoots of the former Kōmeitō, including the Kōmei and New Peace Party, got back together and reestablished the New Kōmeitō.
Then, in October 1999, the Kōmeitō entered into a coalition with the LDP and the Ozawa-led Liberal Party. This was at the time of Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō’s second cabinet, which came to be known as the LDP-Liberal-Kōmeitō coalition cabinet. It marked the Kōmeitō’s return to a conservative line. Since then, the party’s partnership with the LDP, both in government and in the opposition, has endured for 15 years.
The Kōmeitō first achieved a bipartite cabinet with the LDP in November 2003 under Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō. With the dissolution of the New Conservative Party, the third member of the ruling coalition until then, a genuine LDP-Kōmeitō coalition government was born.
The moves toward coalition and partnership stemmed in large part from the system of combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, introduced in 1994 at the time of the Hosokawa administration. Under the reformed electoral system, which was aimed at achieving a two-party system, the Kōmeitō would not be able to maintain a steady strength in the single-member districts without joining hands with a powerful political party such as the LDP, even if it succeeded in filling many proportional-representation seats with the help of stout electoral support from Sōka Gakkai.
Among other reasons, the Kōmeitō chose the LDP as its partner due to its having coordinated with the LDP’s former Tanaka faction over the resumption of diplomatic ties with China in the 1970s. They could also easily share their urban and regional power bases because, in the provincial districts, the Kōmeitō often found itself competing for votes with the Japanese Communist Party and other left-wing forces.
A History of Compromises
The decade and a half of partnership between the two parties has been one big series of compromises. In the second Abe cabinet, inter-party talks over the exercise of the right of collective self-defense ended with a tepid agreement on “conditional acceptance.” The truth of the matter is that leaving the administration was hardly an option for the Kōmeitō.
Regarding the revised Basic Act on Education enacted in December 2006, the LDP and Kōmeitō again were at conflict. But the two parties eventually reached a compromise when the LDP caved in and agreed to include a provision on “patriotism,” as the Kōmeitō had insisted.
On the part of the LDP as well, the reality is that it would be difficult for it to win in single-seat districts without the assistance of the Kōmeitō and Sōka Gakkai. The Kōmeitō has even come to be considered the LDP’s life support.
Thanks to this mutually beneficial relationship, the partnership did not waver even when the Democratic Party of Japan won a landslide victory in the 2009 general election and took over the government. This was partly due to the fact that the DPJ had won so many seats that it did not really need the help of the Kōmeitō. The DPJ, moreover, was warier of the ties between the Kōmeitō and Sōka Gakkai than the LDP was.
Future expectations for the 50-year-old Kōmeitō lie in how it can contribute as a member of the ruling coalition in shaping and reaching agreement on people-centered policies. Yamaguchi Natsuo in his speech at the party’s tenth national convention held in September 2014, in which he was elected for a fourth term as party president, said he would “go forward with unwavering resolve to realize policies for the people.” Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa stressed, “The true worth of the Kōmeitō’s conservative-centrist approach is in its ability to rectify left-right vacillations and biases in government.”
Separating the Religion from the Party
When looking back on the Kōmeitō’s history, we cannot gloss over the “free publication and speech obstruction incident” that unfolded from 1969 to the beginning of the 1970s. Fujiwara Hirotatsu, a Meiji University professor and political commentator, published Sōka Gakkai o kiru (translated into English as I Denounce Soka Gakkai) in November 1969. Strongly opposing the book, Sōka Gakkai put blatant pressure on the publisher, distributors, bookstores, and others prior to the book even going into print.
The incident had an enormous impact on the Kōmeitō, which was making major gains at the time. The close connections between Sōka Gakkai and Kōmeitō came under fierce public criticism on the grounds of separation of religion and state. Ikeda formally apologized in 1970, while maintaining that there had been no intention of obstructing free speech. He went on to declare that he would not go into politics, and Kōmeitō lawmakers, many of whom hailed from the upper echelons of Sōka Gakkai, left any leadership positions they had had within the religious group.
Forty-five years have elapsed since that time, and Honorary President Ikeda rarely appears on formal occasions today due to his health and advanced age. But it remains as true as ever that Sōka Gakkai is the Kōmeitō’s backbone. Furthermore, the Kōmeitō has come to bear great responsibility as a government party. It seems inevitable that the question of who will succeed Ikeda, the charismatic leader of Sōka Gakkai, will have an impact on the party’s future.
Seats Won by the Kōmeitō in Lower House Elections
|Seats won (candidates fielded)|
|31st||January 1967||Black mist dissolution||25（32）|
|32nd||December 1969||Okinawa dissolution||47（76）|
|33rd||December 1972||Sino-Japanese dissolution||29（59）|
|34th||December 1976||Lockheed election||55（88）|
|35th||October 1979||General consumption tax election||57（64）|
|36th||June 1980||"Happening" dissolution||33（64）|
|37th||December 1983||Lockheed dissolution||58（59）|
|38th||July 1986||Play-dead dissolution||56（61）|
|39th||February 1990||Consumer tax dissolution||49（58）|
|40th||July 1993||Political reform dissolution||51（54）|
|41st||October 1996||New electoral system dissolution||(As New Frontier Party)|
|42nd||June 2000||"Land of the gods" dissolution||31（74）|
|43rd||November 2003||Collusion dissolution||34（55）|
|44th||September 2005||Postal dissolution||31（52）|
|45th||August 2009||On-the-brink dissolution||21（51）|
|46th||November 2012||Sometime soon dissolution||31（54）|
Seats Won by the Kōmeitō in Upper House Elections
|Seats won||Nonelective seats||Total seats|
(Banner photo: Kōmeitō President Yamaguchi Natsuo, the eighth from right, poses with others for photos at the party’s national convention held on September 21, 2014, in Minato-ku, Tokyo. © Jiji.)