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Japan’s Small, Powerful Pacifist Party Keeps Politics Stable


Amid the tsunami of political polarization that has swept many of the world’s democracies, Japan has remained a sea of relative tranquility. Even as the country is grappling with real issues, such as prosperity versus inequality and self-defense versus pacifism, it has avoided the rancor that has poisoned the well of democracy elsewhere. Much of this can be attributed to modern Japan’s fabled love of consensus that makes policy slow-moving at best. But there is another more practical aspect, the clout exhibited by a smaller religious-backed political party that has a central role in a country that generally disdains public religion.

The Komeito was founded in 1964 as an offshoot of the Buddhist religious group Soka Gakkai, which traces its roots to 1930 with a founding by two reformist educators. The two were imprisoned in 1943 by the military government that saw the state religion of Shinto as a part of the nationalist edifice. The founding president, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in prison, while his protégé, Josei Toda, survived and went on to rebuild the group in a postwar Japan, where widespread poverty proved to be fertile ground for its messages of support for the downtrodden. While technically separate today (officers of either group are barred by their own rules from any official position in the other), the bonds remain firm, with the religion’s more than 8 million households (the way they measure membership) in Japan a ready army of get-out-the-vote volunteers for Komeito parliamentary candidates.

“While not always appreciated outside Japan, Komeito have an outsized political influence,” said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University in Yokohama. “They are an essential element in the LDP’s power,” he added, referring to the Liberal Democratic Party.

Amid the tsunami of political polarization that has swept many of the world’s democracies, Japan has remained a sea of relative tranquility. Even as the country is grappling with real issues, such as prosperity versus inequality and self-defense versus pacifism, it has avoided the rancor that has poisoned the well of democracy elsewhere. Much of this can be attributed to modern Japan’s fabled love of consensus that makes policy slow-moving at best. But there is another more practical aspect, the clout exhibited by a smaller religious-backed political party that has a central role in a country that generally disdains public religion.

The Komeito was founded in 1964 as an offshoot of the Buddhist religious group Soka Gakkai, which traces its roots to 1930 with a founding by two reformist educators. The two were imprisoned in 1943 by the military government that saw the state religion of Shinto as a part of the nationalist edifice. The founding president, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in prison, while his protégé, Josei Toda, survived and went on to rebuild the group in a postwar Japan, where widespread poverty proved to be fertile ground for its messages of support for the downtrodden. While technically separate today (officers of either group are barred by their own rules from any official position in the other), the bonds remain firm, with the religion’s more than 8 million households (the way they measure membership) in Japan a ready army of get-out-the-vote volunteers for Komeito parliamentary candidates.

“While not always appreciated outside Japan, Komeito have an outsized political influence,” said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University in Yokohama. “They are an essential element in the LDP’s power,” he added, referring to the Liberal Democratic Party.

The Komeito party has always remained limited in its ambitions, at least in terms of parliamentary strength. It fields a limited number of candidates and seldom runs in seats where it is not almost certain of victory. In the 465-seat lower house of parliament, it has just 32 seats, compared with 260 for the long-ruling LDP and 96 for the main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Its overall political strength has been little changed over the years, garnering around 12 percent of the vote on a consistent basis.

Its power lies in its alliance with the LDP, a position it has held since 1999. The party also benefits from its party chief, Natsuo Yamaguchi, who has been at the head of the Komeito since 2009, long enough to see six prime ministers arrive and depart. That includes eight years with Shinzo Abe, who returned the LDP to power in 2012 and stayed for a record eight years in office.

The alliance has been in many ways a marriage of convenience. Under Abe, the LDP pushed the “Abenomics” program that promoted growth and greater economic efficiencies, while the Komeito is focused on supporting the lagging small business sector and working class families largely left behind as big companies and shareholders saw increasing wealth.

The split is also increasingly evident in foreign policy. Komeito is founded on Japan’s principle of postwar pacifism and has historically maintained good relations with China. With Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and fast-growing military power, both views are less popular, especially among the post-World War II generations who were not raised in the shadow of Japan’s wartime aggression and subsequent downfall.

These policy differences have led to compromises on both sides. From Komeito’s perspective, Komeito is the reason that the LDP maintains its overwhelming support despite having been in power for more than a decade. “To make sure that the LDP does not take the wrong path, Komeito keeps the LDP in check,” Komeito’s Yamaguchi told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. Using an appropriately Japanese automobile metaphor, he described the LDP as a strong engine but said that Komeito is the “brake and accelerator,” serving to keep the car in the middle “to see to it that the administration remains one that the public wishes it to be.”

This has required increasingly agile footwork as a growing right wing in the LDP pushes for a tougher approach toward China, and calls for Japan to remove the shackles of a postwar constitution that embraces pacifism and renounces the use of force in international conflicts.

Yamaguchi said international restraint is the key. “If China goes too far, we must restrain them, but if we interfere too much, that only calls for China’s resistance and increases the tensions. What is important is to maintain an environment of peace and stability while both parties restrain themselves,” he said.

At the same time, he did not shy away from suggesting that military strength is part of the way to ensure restraint. “By Japan, the third largest economic power, and the U.S., the largest economic power, forming an alliance, it lays the legal foundation on security issues, allowing us to serve as a deterrence and be a balancing factor vis-à-vis China. I think this is very important.”

Yamaguchi said he shares the government’s concerns that any military action against Taiwan by China would almost certainly drag in Japan. China’s August military exercises to protest the visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw missiles land in exclusive economic zone waters off one of Japan’s remote islands near Taiwan. Japanese media said the decision was personally approved by Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said Taiwan and China needed to negotiate directly and added that “the Taiwanese people value a free and democratic climate,” an idea not likely to be a part of any Chinese rule over the island.

Yamaguchi also kept a diplomatic line on the issue of whether Japan should double its own defense spending over the next five years as proposed by the LDP. Instead of focusing on the amount to spend, he suggested, it would be better to first see what was needed to enhance Japan’s defense and then see what that would cost.

On the issue of whether Japan should change its constitution, he said that having enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment in parliament, which would then go to the voters, is not enough, arguing that such a change should first have a broad consensus among the Japanese people. Polls show that around half of voters remain opposed to changing the pacifist provisions. That extends even to cosmetic moves, such as formalizing the existence of the Self-Defense Force, which has undergone multiple rounds of “mission creep” from its creation as the National Police Reserve in 1950. Today it is one of the largest and best-equipped military forces in the world.

The Komeito’s role is unusual not only in that it pushes back on some of the core ideas of the LDP, especially in terms of defense policy, but that it is linked to a religious group with a strong identity in a country that remains mainly pragmatic and ambiguous about religion. Most Japanese will alternate between Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies depending on the nature of the occasion, or borrow the trappings of ceremonies such as Christian weddings despite less than 2 percent of the population being Christian.

This broader distrust of religions came out after the August assassination of former Prime Minister Abe in July. The gunman said his family had been ruined by his mother’s large donations to the Unification Church, and blamed the LDP and Abe for their ties to the group. This brought back allegations that the organization, founded in South Korea with an extensive U.S. presence, has pressured unwary members to hand over money well beyond their means.

In the ensuing months, relationships between Japanese lawmakers and Unification Church support groups roiled Japanese politics, dropping the Kishida cabinet—along with other factors such as import costs and a declining yen—to just 27 percent support, the lowest since he took office in September 2021, although more recent polls show a slight uptick.

A survey by the Kyodo news agency found that more than 100 of all 712 lawmakers in Japan have had some connections with the Unification Church, with nearly 80 percent of them belonging to the LDP. Trying to recover his balance, Kishida has pushed out a series of LDP lawmakers from senior positions in the party, with Economic Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa the first cabinet-level casualty on Oct. 24.

The level of anger has been surprising. It is also a potential worry for the Komeito as well as the Soka Gakkai, which has in the past been criticized for its own recruitment methods. While no Komeito politicians have been linked to the Unification Church controversy, there remains a quiet distrust of the religion in some quarters. Many Japanese will talk of personal experiences, often many years ago, of uncomfortable encounters with Soka Gakkai supporters in heavy-handed recruitment drives.

Even though the Soka Gakkai and the Unification Church are often bundled under the concept of “new religions,” a general term for the religious groups that sprung up in the 20th century, Yamaguchi had no sympathy for the plight of the Unification Church. He said that their “spiritual sales” are problematic. “Despite being such an organization, the LDP, in order to get more votes, have maintained some form of relationship with them, and that is being brought to light now.”

The LDP and Komeito are engaged in somewhat testy negotiations about how far to go in Japan’s military buildup. But despite the policy differences with the LDP, there are no signs of a divorce in the alliance. For the Komeito, the tie-up provides an outsized role in policymaking, even with some compromises along the way. For the LDP, even though it has the political strength to go it alone, severing ties with a party that has more than 8 million ardent supporters would be a risk it would clearly want to avoid.

“Political chaos would probably be the result if Komeito left the LDP coalition,” said Wallace of Kanagawa University. And Yamaguchi, who was recently voted in as party leader for another two years, remains loyal to the idea. “Frankly speaking, there is no other political party with the people and ability to run the government in place of the LDP,” he said.



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