On the surface the lower house election in October seemed to signal stability for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, there are still considerable machinations taking place behind closed doors. Certainly, the downfall of LDP Secretary General Amari Akira disrupted the designs of some party heavyweights like former prime ministers Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, but there were other notable losses, both in the election and through retirement, all leading to a restructuring of one of the most important features of LDP politics – its factions. Prior to the election, there were seven formal factions that heavily influenced intra-party decision-making. But, we are seeing the most substantial evolution on those groups since 2012 which will shape the trajectory of the party and its leadership for years to come.
What are LDP factions?
The LDP was formed in 1955 through an amalgamation of center-left to right-wing political parties, the two most prominent of which being the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party (hence the name, “Liberal Democratic Party”). But those individual parties did not entirely dissolve even under a unified banner. Instead of being independent parties, they formed five institutionalized factions within the new LDP, all of which still exist in some form today.
These days, factions are simply institutionalized coalitions, and faction heads gain loyalty through provision of certain benefits to members, such as cabinet postings and election support, among other things. Each faction has a formal name, like the Seiwa seisaku kenkyu-kai, but they are more commonly referred to by the name of the faction’s leader – in case of Seiwa seisaku kenkyu-kai, the Abe faction. Naturally, those faction heads have come and gone over the years as LDP leaders rose in the ranks and retired, and there have also been new factions formed and some that have even broken party ranks to create offshoot political parties like the Sakigake and New Frontier parties in the nineties.
Factions reemerged in importance during the LDP’s return to power from 2012 until present. The reasons for that deserve an in-depth study of its own, but the short answer comes down to patronage. There was an influx of new LDP lawmakers following the 2012 election who were either recruited by factional patrons or looking for factional patrons to secure their seats. For those already in the party but not in Abe’s inner-circle, they had to seek other means for gaining cabinet postings and moving up the party ladder, so they joined the factional ranks to take advantage of the well-established party system.
The table below demonstrates this move towards traditional factional politics since 2012, showing each faction’s membership numbers over time. The number of independents (ie. no factional affiliation) has decreased significantly since 2012 and by the end of the 2021 election more than eight in ten LDP parliamentarians were members of a faction.
Why do factions matter?
As former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei once said: “Politics is numbers, and numbers are power.” In other words, with a large enough coalition, a politician could influence intra-party decision making and win the internal elections necessary to become party president and, by extension, prime minister. In an election, if a candidate loses a single-district race, they can be ‘resurrected’ on the proportional candidate ticket. Because there are a limited number of proportional seats, party bosses must negotiate over which candidates get preference. Consequentially, factions are responsible for manufacturing votes for the party presidency, negotiating cabinet and party leadership postings, providing a proportional representation safety net, recruiting candidates, disseminating information among faction members, raising and distributing funds, and extending prestige and tradition to its members.
While the 1994 electoral reforms diminished these benefits, they did not disappear altogether. The reforms amended rules on campaign fundraising and eliminated multi-member districts that allowed faction heads to challenge other party members in elections. As a result, faction heads have weaker leverage for forcing voting discipline and loyalty among their members once members didn’t have to rely on the faction for guaranteeing political survival. Still, factions have other functions that have ensured that they remain relevant today.
How LDP factions give rise to ‘kingmakers‘
Based on numerical strength, LDP factions can wield significant influence in party presidential elections where candidates need numbers. This is how a faction head can become a kingmaker. Numbers empower the individual to make or break candidates in the party presidential elections. Like Tanaka said, the politician who controls the numbers, controls the seat of power.
Furthermore, factions can help muster the twenty nominations necessary to run for the presidency. For example, netting twenty supporters for the 2021 presidential race was a foregone conclusion for Kishida Fumio who had 45 other faction members. But it was not so easy for Noda Seiko who is not part of any faction and had the extra hurdle of trying to overcome the gender barrier. In fact, Noda tried multiple times to run for party president before 2021 but could never find the twenty nominations even to throw her hat into the ring which is a problem factional support might have solved for her.
Then there are the numbers needed for the election itself. To win the election, a candidate must receive a majority in voting among LDP members, including all sitting Diet members and an equal number of voters who represent the party’s local chapters. If a majority is not achieved, then only the top two vote-getters move on to a second round. Given that a race with more than two candidates where a majority is unlikely, factional backing can make all the difference in getting to that second round, which consists of only Diet members and so factional backing means everything for candidates.
Factions and Policy
That said, factions have never exercised heavy influence over the development of LDP policy, which is led instead by ‘policy tribes’ known as zoku which cross factional boundaries. A prominent example of this is Onodera Itsunori and Kishida Fumio. Onodera is far more hawkish than Kishida who is head of the faction and has worked in the LDP’s research commissions on defense which include members from various LDP factions.
But that does not mean that factions do not have political leanings. Because recruitment and patronage are important to factions, senior politicians tend to bring in junior members who have similar political views. In practice this means is that Abe’s faction is generally further right of the political spectrum than the average LDP lawmaker, and Kishida’s faction is generally further left.
The evolution of factions since 2012
Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyu-kai (Machimura → Hosoda → Abe Faction)
Until 2015, this faction was headed by Machimura Nobutaka. When he passed away in 2015, there was some debate over who would take over. The Machimura faction was Abe Shinzo’s home faction, and while it may have seemed appropriate that he take the helm, a long-standing tradition is that prime ministers sever factional ties while in the Kantei, and Abe never demonstrated a desire to deal with the obligations associated with managing factional affairs anyway. As a result, Hosoda Hiroyuki took over in 2015 with Abe’s blessing.
The faction further evolved in 2021, when Speaker of the Lower House Oshima Tadamori decided that he would retire from office. The LDP decided upon Hosoda as Oshima’s replacement, leaving the leadership position vacant for Abe to step in where he could not back in 2015. With Abe now as a formal faction head, he has institutionalized his potential to become a kingmaker inside the LDP.
Kochi-kai (Koga → Kishida Faction & Tanigaki Group)
Koga Makoto retired from the Diet with the 2012 election, forcing a transition in leadership that splintered the faction. Formal factional leadership went to Kishida Fumio, but several members wanted power to go to former LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu. It ultimately split off to form the quasi-factional Tanigaki Group, while Kishida inherited what was then the third largest faction in the LDP and earned a spot as prime minister-hopeful in the process. Kishida managed to keep his faction’s membership numbers relatively high, but the merger of the Aso faction, Santo faction, and some members of the Tanigaki Group dropped Kishida’s faction from third to fourth in size. Although Kishida was unable to leverage his middle-tier faction to election success in the 2020 LDP presidential election, his fortunes changed in 2021 when he was able to make the deals necessary to win enough votes to lead the LDP and, in turn, the country.
Shiko-kai (Aso Faction)
In 2012 former prime minister Aso Taro led the party’s fourth-largest faction which he had been in charge of since 2006. He inherited the faction from Aizawa Hideyuki, who was temporarily managing it on behalf of the faction’s founder, Kono Yohei, father of the popular LDP “maverick” Kono Taro. While being fourth largest did not preclude him from exercising influence, Aso sought to elevate the faction’s standing, bringing in the Santo faction and a few members of the Tanigaki Group in 2017. The move effectively took the Aso and Santo factions from fourth and sixth largest to second largest in the party and postured the Aso faction well for influencing post-Abe politics.
The question now is what will come of the Aso faction. Aso is in his pre-retirement job as LDP Vice President, and his close faction-mate Amari Akira was just dealt a shock defeat in the latest lower house election. While the party rescued Amari on the proportional ticket, any aspirations Amari had for making it higher in the party are gone.
Meanwhile, the LDP sidelined Kono Taro following the latest presidential election, but Aso has to wonder what Kono may do from here. Given that the faction belonged to his father until the early 2000s, Kono may look at taking over the faction to boost his chances of becoming prime minister one day after suffering defeat in his bid this year. This will be worth watching in the coming years.
Seisaku Kenkyu-kai (Komura → Oshima → Santo Faction)
As former party vice-president Komura Masahiko neared retirement, he opted to transfer leadership of his faction to the steady hands of veteran lawmaker Oshima Tadamori. Oshima proved too steady a hand for the factional politics though, earning instead the position of Shūgiin Gichō (“Speaker of the House of Representatives”) when previous speaker Machimura Nobutaka suffered a stroke. When he accepted the position, Oshima relinquished leadership of the faction to Santo Akiko, who became the LDP’s first female faction head. With few faction members, however, Santo was unable to exercise a great deal of influence over intra-party affairs, so she decided to join forces with Aso Taro.
Shisui-kai (Ibuki → Nikai Faction)
When Ibuki Bunmei retired from political life in 2012, he turned the faction over to Nikai Toshihiro. The Nikai faction maintained consistent membership as a mid-sized faction. At one point, Nikai considered a formal merger with the Ishihara faction to boost his numbers, but he no longer needed that move when he was able to wrangle the influential secretary general post within the LDP. Despite Nikai’s personal elevation, the members of his faction faltered in their respective cabinet appointments. Between 2012 and 2021, three resigned due to scandal, gaffes, or incompetency, while several others received heavy media and opposition party scrutiny for the same. With Nikai losing his secretary general posting in the LDP leadership shakeup in late 2021, the future of Nikai’s faction is uncertain despite its size.
Kinmirai Seiji Kenkyu-kai (Yamazaki → Ishihara Faction)
Ishihara Nobuteru was a legitimate threat to Abe in the 2012 party presidential campaign, so much so that he earned leadership over the small Yamazaki faction. However, Ishihara was unsuccessful in expanding the faction’s membership, and as a former challenger to Abe, did not enjoy a great deal of influence in intra-party machinations. With Ishihara’s loss in last month’s lower house election and subsequent resignation as faction head, the fate of his ever-dwindling faction is unknown.
Heisei Kenkyu-kai (Nukaga → Takeshita → Motegi Faction)
The Nukaga faction went into the Abe era under the leadership of Nukaga Fukushiro but experienced a leadership change in 2018. The faction consistently commanded a large number of Diet members, but Nukaga was notoriously lax in his leadership over faction members. Such a laissez-faire attitude meant that factional members did not have as many obligations associated with their factional ties, but the more ambitious members resented Nukaga’s passivity.
Among them was Takeshita Wataru, whose father founded the faction. Under Takeshita Nobutaka’s leadership (and later, guidance), the faction successfully produced five of the last fourteen LDP Prime Ministers, three of which served consecutively. Takeshita Wataru negotiated the transition of power from Nukaga in 2018, but his inability to maintain factional unity in the LDP presidential election that same year demonstrated his difficulty in eliminating seams in the faction allowed to open during the Nukaga leadership era.
Those seams enabled the rise of Motegi Toshimitsu inside the faction. Motegi asserted his leadership on several occasions–most notably in the 2018 LDP presidential election when Motegi split the lower house members of the faction to vote for Abe, while Takeshita and the upper house members sided with Ishiba Shigeru. When Takeshita announced his retirement from politics in July 2021 due to throat cancer (he passed away shortly thereafter), the faction decided to wait until after the lower house election to determine his successor, but Motegi was already the strongest candidate to take over the faction. Following his ascension to the LDP secretary general position, Motegi became the shoo-in. Now leading the LDP’s third largest faction and holding the party’s number two post, Motegi holds significant institutional power.
Suigetsu-kai (Ishiba Faction)
Ishiba Shigeru had long stood as an anti-faction LDP lawmaker, but in vying for party presidency, he still needed to increase his support base. He started an informal group of independents that met regularly. It was only at the members’ behest that Ishiba relented and finally formed his faction. This small but steady group continued to rally behind Ishiba since its formation in 2015, but Ishiba’s failure to win the party presidency in 2020 contributed to his decision to step down as faction head. Following a decrease in members after the 2021 Lower House election, the Ishiba faction downgraded itself to the less formalized “group.”
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special advisor for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield Fellow.