On the surface, Japan’s most recent general election on October 31st, did not appear to bring any major change to Japanese politics. Post-election commentary ranges from emphasizing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s success, to the rise of the conservative reformist party Isshin no Kai, as well as the boost in Komeito’s fortunes. Most of these focus on the relative success of Japan’s right. However, understanding the election results simply by placing each party on a left-right binary cannot explain everything.
Perhaps no party best exemplifies Japan’s breaking of this political mold more than Komeito. As a party rooted in the Buddhist Sokka Gakkai movement, any left-right spectrum would place Komeito on the right to center-right due to its religious affiliations. Yet the party supports a broader social welfare system, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and shares the pacifist anti-militarism of left-leaning parties. Understanding Japanese politics by making a division between those parties that support reforming or upholding Article 9 of Japan’s “pacifist” post-war constitution, intended to prevent a re-militarization of the island nation, also offers limited insight. Consider Komeito’s opposition to Article 9 reforms, for example. It stands in stark contrast to its coalition membership with the vaguely pro-amendment LDP. As a result, speculation that assumes that a “bolstered” LDP and empowered by a “conservative” Ishin will open the door to constitutional revision is off the mark – if anything, the door is as shut as it’s always been.
The reality is that almost every Japanese party is either clearly anti-revision or holds ambiguous views on constitutional revision despite the relative dominance of the topic in U.S. media. There is even a lack of consensus between the LDP’s internal factions on what exactly revision should entail. Despite its description by some commentators as a clearly pro-revision party, the LDP officially holds a cautious stance on the subject, supporting “reforms” to legally define the Self-Defense Forces, allowing local candidates breathing room.
Despite efforts to fit Japanese politics on a spectrum like those in Western democracies, neither of the frameworks usually offered by foreign media provide a clear picture of Japan’s politics
Thus, despite efforts to fit Japanese politics on a spectrum like those in Western democracies, neither of the frameworks usually offered by foreign media provide a clear picture of Japan’s politics, which is underpinned by a welfare capitalist and foreign policy autonomy-driven consensus. Instead, the fundamental question driving Japanese politics, whether among the LDP’s factions or among the smaller and more ideologically coherent opposition parties, is how to reform that system, whether reform should be progressive or incremental and whether Western liberal or traditional Japanese conceptions of politics and society should predominate.
The traditionalist group in Japanese politics, like Komeito and the Kishida Fumio-backing factions of the LDP, are those politicians who value Japan’s long-standing political support for the family structure, take a communitarian approach to business and labor, and value a measure of autonomy in Japan’s foreign relations. Such views typically translate into opposition towards structural economic reforms and a more assertive foreign policy in line with the U.S. alliance. Notably, “traditionalism” does not necessarily translate into social conservatism in the U.S. or European sense. In fact, traditionalist parties like Komeito are far more accepting of LGBT rights than their Western counterparts but do so from the perspective of expanding the structure of the Japanese family.
Reformists, on the other hand, favor updating Japan’s traditional socio-economic system to allow for greater economic competitiveness, global outreach, and modernization. Whether perceived as left or right of center in the Western sense, each promotes updating Japan’s social contract rather than attempting to bring modern aspects of Japanese life into a traditional framework. Such reformists include the Kono Taro-backing factions of the LDP, Isshin no Kai, and smaller opposition parties like the Yuriko Koike-affiliated Tomin First and leftist upstart Reiwa.
Yet electoral considerations still predominate even when more ideologically coherent coalitions may be tempting in other circumstances. If the question is reform of Article 9, then the potential formation of a security-minded coalition between the reformist and militarist factions within the LDP with opposition parties like Ishin may seem obvious, theoretically replacing Komeito’s pacifist “stop-gap” on security legislation. The problem is that Komeito’s electoral machine is almost essential for boosting the LDP’s vote share, whereas Ishin is competing directly for the LDP’s core constituent voters. Had a neoliberal reformist like Kono Taro won the LDP leadership election, it might be plausible for the party to ditch Komeito for Ishin, if he had prioritized rearming Japan in the face of a rising China by creating a reform-hawkish rather than a traditional-conservative coalition in favor of Article 9 reform over the continued electoral support of Komeito.
Yet, when threatened with the prospect of an ascendant reformist-hawkish leader in Kono Taro, the forces of Article 9 reform within the LDP split along traditionalist, rather than reformist, lines. During the recent internal leadership election, for example, the “far-right” candidate Takaichi Sanae supported Kishida Fumio over Kono Taro after her elimination in the first round despite sharing Kono’s support for amending Article 9. In fact, her views were widely considered to be a proxy for those of former prime minister and party elder Abe Shinzo himself.
As a result, it appears that the only real path to reforming Article 9 is found outside of traditionalist LDP leadership. Advocates for reform would need to instead form a like-minded coalition of reformist political interest beyond LDP frameworks. In this scenario, a reformist coalition could pursue reform of Article 9 while simultaneously upholding other emblematic postwar Japanese political traditions, potentially ensuring support from elements of the liberal and left-of-center opposition that are open to Article 9 reform but mistrust the LDP’s intentions. That includes the “reformist centrist” Democratic Party for the People (DPP) whose leader Yuichiro Tamaki argued for Article 9 reform as a means of reigning in the LDP. As of now, the only Japanese politician with political and moral capital to lead such an eclectic reformist coalition of parties is Kono Taro, but this remains, as of now, a flight of political fancy.
For U.S. goals in the Indo-Pacific, this outcome is both positive and negative. On one hand, U.S. policymakers and Japan observers would likely bemoan a return to fractious opposition governance. Stability and reliability in Japanese politics is highly prized for its ability to pursue regional initiatives, and previous opposition governments have been lackluster. But without a change in the fundamental political framework, traditionalists seem likely to not only block any updates to Article 9, as well as the sort of meaningful defense reforms needed to bolster Japan’s deterrence capacity vis-à-vis a rising China.
If there is any takeaway from the election, the political currents suggest that as long as the LDP-Komeito traditional axis of power as led by Kishida remains, there is little real chance for Article 9 reform, and any discussion of a bolstered Japanese defense posture will likely be governed by inertia.
Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force with extensive operational experience in East Asia and Japan and a PhD. student at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs focusing on Japanese security relations with Southeast Asia. He is also a lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School, where he teaches courses on Japanese politics, culture, and security. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Moez Hayat is a 2021-2022 Fulbright Scholar and visiting researcher in the Academy of Brunei Studies at the Universiti BruneiDarussalam (UBD). He completed his Master of Arts in Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, the Fulbright Commission, the UBD, or any part of the U.S. government.