With the Liberal Democratic Party Struggling, Komeito’s More Vital to Japan’s Ruling Coalition Than Ever Before

Dr. Levi McLaughlin
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University

Publications With the Liberal Democratic Party Struggling, Komeito’s More Vital to Japan’s Ruling Coalition Than Ever Before

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (second from right) and Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi agree to cooperate in elections for Tokyo districts. LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, first from right, and Komeito Secretary-General Keiichi Ishii, fourth from right, also signed the document at the Diet in September 2023. (Photo via the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan)

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Cabinet have faced relentless waves of cratering public approval[1] since the murder of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe[2] in July 2022. Mr. Kishida’s misfortunes began in earnest with widespread public outrage over revelations in the aftermath of the assassination about links between Mr. Abe and many others in his Liberal Democratic Party with the controversial Korea-based Unification Church. Mr. Abe’s posthumous impact has manifested most recently in the worst corruption scandal[3] his party has faced in decades. Allegations surfaced in November 2023 that ministers and other lawmakers affiliated with the LDP faction Seiwakai, better known as the Abe faction, violated political finance laws by taking kickbacks from fundraising proceeds that they concealed in party slush funds. In mid-December 2023, the Kishida Cabinet hit a record-low approval rating of 17.1 percent,[4] the lowest since Mr. Abe led the Liberal Democratic Party / Komeito coalition back to power in December 2012. The Abe faction, along with the Shisuikai faction led by former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, announced their dissolution on January 19, following Mr. Kishida’s decision to disband his own LDP faction, the Kochikai.

Given recent polling,[5] the national-level LDP-led coalition does not appear vulnerable to a coherent electoral alternative comparable to the Democratic Party of Japan that unseated the LDP-Komeito connection in 2009. Additionally, the Japanese government is not required to hold a Lower House election until October 31, 2025. However, LDP candidates weakened by widespread public disapproval and a party apparatus wrestling with the disarray of factional dissolution will be seeking all the electoral support they can muster. The LDP needs its coalition partner Komeito now more than ever before.

Komeito’s Electoral Woes

A turn to Komeito might seem counterintuitive, given recent evidence that Komeito’s historic strength as a vote-gathering power appears to be diminishing and conflicts between the coalition partners have recently risen to the fore. Komeito,[6] a party founded in 1964 by the massive lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, entered coalition with the LDP from 1999 after decades of acrimony between the two parties. Gakkai members have since served Komeito and its LDP ally as Japan’s most potent electioneering machine; common wisdom indicates that the religion’s adherents have historically mustered 20,000 votes per district in national elections. However, there has been a notable drop in Komeito’s vote-gathering power. On the proportional representation tier,[7] Komeito garnered 6.53 million votes in the 2019 Upper House election, 7.11 million in the 2021 Lower House race, and 6.11 million in the 2022 Upper House campaign, by far the lowest count of the coalition era. In the unified local elections of April 2023, 12 of 1,555 Komeito candidates[8] lost their races. A 99.2 percent success rate would earn boasting rights in most political circles, but because these losses included four of 11 candidates in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, and one in Miyakojima, Osaka, known strongholds of Gakkai loyalty, the religion’s supporters were alarmed. Komeito’s national leader Natsuo Yamaguchi apologized to the party faithful following the local-level races, and Gakkai adherents shared concerns about the future of their religion and its affiliated party.

Trust between the coalition partners was challenged after this during a spat triggered by reapportionment[9] that saw the addition of five Lower House districts in Tokyo. In January 2022, Komeito announced that it would run former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Mitsunari Okamoto, currently its representative in Tokyo’s 12th district, in the newly created Tokyo 29. Komeito then asked the LDP to cede the new district Tokyo 28 in Nerima Ward to another of its candidates. When the LDP refused, Komeito announced it would make all Tokyo races a free vote for its supporters, meaning that the LDP Lower House candidates in Tokyo would lose Soka Gakkai vote-gathering aid for the first time in three decades.

Adding to electoral uncertainty is an epochal event for Soka Gakkai. On November 15, 2023, the religion’s honorary president Daisaku Ikeda died at the age of 95.[10] Given that members of Soka Gakkai have been cultivated for generations to regard mobilizing for electoral campaigns as a form of “returning obligation” (ongaeshi) to their charismatic leader, questions arise as to how the religion and the party will continue to rely on an affective bond between Mr. Ikeda and his disciples that has traditionally powered Komeito electioneering.

Uneasiness about Komeito has led LDP politicians to consider alternatives for coalition cooperation.[11] In late 2022, they reportedly demonstrated interest in allying with the Democratic Party for the People (DPP) and Nippon Ishin no Kai,[12] the surging opposition party that poses the greatest threat to the coalition in western Japan. Both appear to be closer to the LDP than Komeito on most policy matters, particularly when it comes to national defense. And Ishin has distinguished itself with its rising voter appeal. Given that 17 of the LDP’s 261 Lower House members elected to the Diet in October 2021 won their districts with less than a five percent margin of victory[13] and that many others could see diminished vote counts in the next race, the LDP’s parliamentary dominance is more precarious than it may first appear. Turning to a new partner who shares policy priorities and speaks to today’s voters may seem like a timely move.

Stability is Key

However, it is too soon to count out Komeito on its own strengths, and it is highly unlikely that the LDP will consider destabilizing its quarter-century-long relationship with its coalition partner during a time of acute internal disarray. Here are three important considerations:

  • Even though its power is diminishing, Komeito’s support organization Soka Gakkai remains Japan’s most potent electioneering organization. It is true that Komeito’s vote share is dropping more quickly than the proportional decline in Japan’s registered voters, which has only gone down by approximately one percent[14] over the past decade and a half. But if Soka Gakkai can only muster half its historic 20,000 votes per district in elections to come, or even markedly less than this, it will likely retain its status as Japan’s most powerful vote-gathering machine. While Ishin or the DPP may be more consonant with the LDP than Komeito appears to be on a policy level, they cannot match Komeito’s capacity to mobilize devoted vote-gatherers across Japan.
  • The recent dispute over new Tokyo districts involved more than resentment between Komeito and the LDP. It may be a case of partners flexing their muscles rather than irreparable cracks in the coalition. Komeito’s Okamoto quickly came to an agreement with the national-level LDP on running in Tokyo 29 with no LDP opponent. Meanwhile, shifts by LDP candidates vying for spots in the new Tokyo districts, and disagreements between the national- and Tokyo-level LDP over who should run in Tokyo 28, exacerbated conflict to the point that Komeito threatened to remove support for its partner in national-level Tokyo races. As the junior coalition partner and the only party in Japan with decades of experience in both opposition and government, Komeito has become skilled at reminding its LDP ally of how much sway it holds in mustering votes while remaining wary of what is at stake should it fall out of favor with the majority party. The conflict was resolved[15] on September 4, 2023, when Mr. Kishida and Mr. Yamaguchi signed an agreement on electoral cooperation.
  • The policy gap between the coalition partners tends to be overstated. Even on matters of national security and constitutional revision, areas where Komeito has famously promoted itself as a “brake” (hadome) against the LDP’s most hawkish initiatives, Komeito politicians share more with their LDP ally, and even with opposition parties on the right, than may be immediately apparent. The generation of Komeito Diet members and supporters waiting in the wings to take up party leadership may be even more open to policy shifts that favor LDP agendas than the current leadership, which already approved security legislation[16] that reverses Komeito’s founding pacifism. A Komeito Diet member in November 2023,[17] for example, emphasized his bid to expand their party’s appeal beyond the traditional Gakkai base by addressing the needs of middle-income earners through retirement savings opportunities aimed at young professionals, thereby pushing for centrist financial policy aims that are beyond Komeito’s typical social welfare-oriented priorities. And while adhering to his party’s cautious approach of recommending additions to the current constitution rather than revising its existing language, he pointed out articles that could be priorities for amendment, including allowing emergency measures empowering the government to postpone national elections in the case of a large-scale disaster. Granting the government emergency powers in times of calamity is a constitutional matter also emphasized by the LDP and Ishin. Overall, Komeito politicians and their supporters do not differ significantly from their LDP counterparts when it comes to many policy priorities, and the current distance between the parties may grow narrower as a new generation of leaders step in.

In sum, a shared commitment to stability underlies an LDP-Komeito relationship that extends beyond a basic calculation of electoral benefits and balancing policy objectives. Twenty-five years of partnership comprises the entirety of most coalition members’ careers, and connections between politicians on both sides of the combine run deep. Politicians and voter bases for both parties favor a stable relationship that translates into mutual support not only at the national level but at prefectural and municipal levels, as well.

In conversations held in December 2023, two LDP members from the now dissolved Seiwakai faction expressed clear support for maintaining their party’s relationship with Komeito. Coalition stability will be all the more important for these representatives and others in their party so long as scandals undermine voter confidence. LDP politicians no longer simply confront the matter of Kishida’s electoral weakness but more general malaise and replacing Mr. Kishida[18] as prime minister may not solve their problems at the polls. Weakened LDP candidates will need all the electoral support they can get, and they are likely to lean heavily on their Komeito partner, despite challenges Komeito faces.

An Uncertain Future

On a Saturday in late November 2023, Komeito held a rally at a civic auditorium in Ōfuna City, Kanagawa Prefecture, to welcome two new Komeito candidates who had been appointed by the party to fill the proportional representation tier for the Southern Kantō Block in the next Lower House election. This would appear to be a bureaucratic selection process unlikely to inspire voter enthusiasm on a Saturday night, particularly for an election that may not happen for close to two years. But as is customary, Soka Gakkai’s adherents ensured that the 1,500-person hall was full. Attendees enthusiastically applauded Dr. Mitsuko Numazaki, an anesthesiologist with an impressive research profile, and Naoki Harada, a 33-year-old father of two young children who is fluent in the strategically important languages Chinese, English, and Korean. The two candidates were clearly selected to appeal to Komeito supporters of contrasting generations, assuaging worries about healthcare shared by older voters and presenting a dynamic and youthful outlook on regional tensions to supporters who will lead Japan in the future.

The audience at the event was overwhelmingly older, with an average age around seventy, if not considerably higher. While the party appealed to young voters by presenting Mr. Harada, voters his age were few and far between at the rally. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that a combination of demographic shifts with challenges Komeito and Soka Gakkai face in continuing to appeal to their base may see diminishing capacity for the party and religion to motivate adherents to treat campaigning as a staple practice. And questions remain about Komeito’s ability to expand its appeal beyond its Soka Gakkai foundation. Nonetheless, Komeito remains a vital partner for its beleaguered LDP coalition ally. No other party or interest group can match its power to mobilize. A stable relationship with Komeito will be vital to the LDP as it confronts challenges leading up to the next general election, and after that, as well.

[1] “Japan Political Pulse: Examining the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Public Approval Rating Over Time,” Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, accessed January 22, 2024, https://spfusa.org/source/japan-political-pulse/.

[2] Levi McLaughlin, “The Abe Assassination and Japan’s Nexus of Religion and Politics,” ResearchGate, August 2023, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/373485016_The_Abe_Assassination_and_Japan’s_Nexus_of_Religion_and_Politics.

[3] Anthony Kuhn, “Party bosses fall in Japan’s worst political corruption scandal in decades,” NPR, December 22, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/12/22/1221230635/japan-alleged-political-corruption-ldp-slush-fund.

[4] Satoshi Sugiyama, “Japan PM Kishida’s cabinet approval hits record low at 17.1% – JiJi,” Reuters, December 14, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/kishidas-cabinet-approval-hits-record-low-171-jiji-2023-12-14/.

[5] “86.6% in Japan back tougher political funds control laws amid scandal,” Kyodo News, January 14, 2024, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2024/01/ff17cba0bb02-urgent-866-in-japan-back-tougher-political-funds-control-laws-amid-scandal.html.

[6] Axel Klein and Levi McLaughlin, “Kōmeitō: The Party and Its Place in Japanese Politics,” ResearchGate, February 2021, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/356944736_Komeito_The_Party_and_Its_Place_in_Japanese_Politics.

[7] “公明、集票力回復急ぐ…組織衰退進み比例93万票減 (Komeito accelerates recovery of vote-gathering power…organization declines and proportionally decreases by 930,000 votes),” The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 18, 2022, https://www.yomiuri.co.jp/election/sangiin/20220717-OYT1T50263/.

[8] “Komeito Shocked to See 12 Local Election Loses,” The Japan News, April 25, 2023, https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/politics/election/‌20230425-‌105732/.

[9] Satoshi Ogawa, “Deep-seated Distrust between LDP, Komeito Breaks into the Open,” The Japan News, June 17, 2023, https://japannews.‌yomiuri.co.jp/‌editorial/political-pulse/20230617-116647/.

[10] Motoko Rich, “Daisaku Ikeda, Who Led Influential Japanese Buddhist Group, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, November 29, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/29/world/asia/daisaku-ikeda-dead.html.

[11] Daniel M. Smith, “Kishida’s Policy Goals and Party Politics in 2023,” Japan Political Pulse, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, February 24, 2023, https://spfusa.org/publications/kishidas-policy-goals-and-party-politics-in-2023/.

[12] Rintaro Nishimura, “The LDP and Ishin no Kai – Together at Last?” Tokyo Review, June 29, 2023, https://tokyoreview.net/2023/06/the-ldp-and-ishin-no-kai-together-at-last/.

[13] Daniel M. Smith and Yuko Nakano, “RESOLVED: The Lower House Election Is a Warning Sign for the LDP,” Debating Japan, Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 29, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/resolved-lower-house-election-warning-sign-ldp.

[14] “選挙関連資料 (Election Related Materials),” Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, accessed January 25, 2024, https://www.soumu.go.jp/senkyo/senkyo_s/data/.

[15] Mika Kuniyoshi, “LDP, Komeito formally repair ties amid rise of Nippon Ishin,” The Asahi Shimbun, September 5, 2023,  https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14997770.

[16] Levi McLaughlin, “Komeito’s Soka Gakkai Protesters and Supporters: Religious Motivations for Political Activism in Contemporary Japan,” The Asia-Pacific Journal 13, no.41 (October 2015), https://apjjf.org/-Levi-McLaughlin/4386.

[17] Author interview with Diet member, November 29, 2023.

[18] “Survey: 58% say Kishida must go; Cabinet approval rate slips to 23%,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 18, 2023, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/15086972.

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