Disbanding the LDP Factions No Easy Task


The Liberal Democratic Party has responded to its ongoing kickbacks scandal by moving to disband its factions, but the history of the party shows that this may not be straightforward.

Slump in Support

More than three months have passed since a Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office’s special investigation team announced on November 18, 2023, that it was beginning hearings based on a criminal complaint concerning five factions of the Liberal Democratic Party suspected of not recording income from fundraising parties in their political funding reports.

It emerged that lawmakers in the faction formerly led by the late Abe Shinzō were suspected of receiving kickbacks, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, a core member of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s cabinet. In mid-December, Kishida removed Abe faction members from four cabinet posts, as well as LDP executive positions.

In January, it was disclosed that the former accounting official for the Kishida faction was under suspicion for not reporting income. While many LDP politicians quit their faction if they become prime minister, Kishida had shown his affinity for the system by deciding not to resign. Despite this inclination, on January 23 he disbanded the faction—which was the party’s oldest, formed in 1957—almost entirely without consultation.

The Kishida faction was the fourth largest in the LDP when it was dissolved. At the same time, the largest (Abe) and fifth largest (Nikai) decided to disband. The sixth largest (Moriyama) followed suit. Meanwhile, as a string of key lawmakers announced that they were leaving the third-largest Motegi faction, its leader Motegi Toshimitsu stated on January 29 that the faction would dissolve to be reorganized as a policy group.

This means that all except the second-largest Asō faction are moving toward dissolution, which is probably mainly due to the unforgiving views of the electorate. Media surveys since November have shown a clear slump in cabinet support and a decline in backing for the LDP. Notably, a Jiji Press poll found in January that support for the LDP was 14.6%, which is a record low since the poll started in 1960, excluding when the party has been in opposition.

A House of Representatives election must be held before October 2025. The next House of Councillors election is due in July 2025, with campaigning beginning the previous month. LDP lawmakers’ sense of crisis about these elections is stronger than one might imagine.

Many citizens can sense the current sorry predicament of the LDP in having depended on the Unification Church for votes and undeclared fundraising party revenue for financing. Both its traditional supporters and independents are rapidly shifting away from the LDP. Current party lawmakers and those who will run as candidates in the next national elections have a palpable sense of this movement, and it is surely their cries that are spurring on the end of the factions.

Factions from the Start

The LDP was formed in November 1955 with eight factions within the party, as well as several other small groups. One might imagine that the factions came into being after the formation of the party, but this is not the case. Before they merged in a conservative alignment to produce the LDP, the former Liberal Party and Japan Democratic Party themselves consisted of factions.

The LDP was formed on November 15, 1955, with the merging of the conservative Liberal Party and Japan Democratic Party. The new party established an unprecedented dominance in postwar politics, with 298 lower and 115 upper house lawmakers. This was the start of the so-called 1955 system, which pitted the ruling conservative LDP against opposition reformers in an unbroken run of government for 38 years. (© Kyōdō)
The LDP was formed on November 15, 1955, with the merging of the conservative Liberal Party and Japan Democratic Party. The new party established an unprecedented dominance in postwar politics, with 298 lower and 115 upper house lawmakers. This was the start of the so-called 1955 system, which pitted the ruling conservative LDP against opposition reformers in an unbroken run of government for 38 years. (© Kyōdō)

The LDP governed Japan in what was effectively a one-party system from the premiership of its first leader, Hatoyama Ichirō, until it was toppled 38 years later by an eight-party coalition headed by Hosokawa Morihiro in August 1993. Until 1993, the use of medium-sized districts with multiple seats (generally three to five) for House of Representatives elections meant it was common for the same party to field several candidates in the same constituency. In this system, factions operated as parties within the party.

The 1970s and 1980s were the heyday of the factions. While ostensibly there was a two-party system based around the LDP and Japan Socialist Party, there was no actual change of government. Instead, the LDP’s intraparty tussles for the premiership enacted simulated changes to allay public discontent, with factions taking on the leading roles.

In its first spell in opposition, the LDP’s factions entered a fallow period. Following the explosion of the Recruit scandal in 1988 and the Sagawa Express scandal in 1992, an electoral reform bill was passed in 1994. This saw the introduction of today’s House of Representatives system combining single-seat districts with proportional representation and a new kind of funding to subsidize political party activities with public money. It seemed to mark the beginning of the end for factions.

An amendment to political funding legislation at this time forbade donations from corporations or organizations to individual politicians. In 1999, this was expanded to ban donations to fund management bodies.

However, there was a loophole. Buyers spending less than ¥200,000 for political fundraising parties did not need to be named on income and expenditure reports, leading to the rampant usage of this method. Factions revived and remained rooted as a support for the LDP for the next 30 years, until now.

The major factions are now on the brink of dissolution. Although this is a new situation, it is not the first time that there have been such movements within the LDP.

A Cycle of Dissolution and Revival

In 1963, Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato made the first move to dissolve the factions—Ikeda was himself the founder of the Kōchikai faction most recently headed by Kishida. A research committee produced a report on the matter, but it was not implemented.

After a period of major factional conflict, involving powerful politicians within the party, Fukuda Takeo decided to bring an end to the factions in January 1977 shortly after becoming prime minister. He started by disbanding his own. A total of nine factions made a show of dissolution.

When Fukuda’s premiership came to an end in December 1978, however, the factions sprang back into action. The next two prime ministers, Ōhira Masayaoshi and Suzuki Zenkō, both led Kōchikai at the same time as they held the premiership.

The LDP election defeat in 1993 was followed by a new report on dissolving the factions, which was implemented by all five then active, along with the closure of their offices. The party returned to government in June 1994 through an alliance with the JSP, whose leader Murayama Tomiichi became prime minister. After Murayama stepped down in January 1996, Hashimoto Ryūtarō succeeded him, becoming the first LDP prime minister in over two years. While on the surface the factions were gone, though, in reality they continued to operate as “policy groups.”

Then, when Obuchi Keizō took over from Hashimoto in July 1998, these groups became open factions again. The LDP history of factions consists of a series of failed attempts at disbandment followed by acceptance of their revival. What is the reason for their continued existence? The major factor is their provision of “power in numbers” in the struggles that go with the political world. Some judge them to be a necessary evil.

At the same time, their effectiveness cannot be denied. Competition between factions invigorates the party when it comes to policy debate. It is also true that the various factions within the party have helped to absorb a diverse range of public opinion—including minority opinions, reflecting the various values held within Japanese society—and have attempted to put them into practice. Their division of power within the party has also put the brake on any tendency toward monolithic rule by the party executives. They have also played a role in identifying, nurturing, and finding positions for political talent.

The Risk of Losing Power Again

At the same time, their harmful effects are even greater. Factions control the government with the power of numbers and money, making the party their own private possession. They have had a notorious reputation for opaque decision-making, with their leaders forging policy together behind the scenes, out of the eyes of the public.

The LDP has set out on its third attempt since formation to eradicate its factions. Will the third time really be the charm, leading to a complete break with factional politics and a fresh start, or will it be the familiar pattern of half-hearted dissolution and revival? If the party settles for stopgap measures this time, it will be no surprise if a day of judgement comes, with the will of the people sending it into opposition for the third time in its history.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 10, 2024. Banner photo: LDP faction leaders Kishida Fumio, Shionoya Ryū, Nikai Toshihiro, and Moriyama Hiroshi. Nikai photo © Reuters; other photos © Jiji.)

LDP politics factions