Since former prime minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated, the assassin’s cause – his grievances against the Unification Church and the Liberal Democratic Party’s connections with it – have gotten more attention and created more political controversy than the assassin could have dreamed. Yet in the long run the future of Japanese politics may be determined by the LDP’s relationship with another religious organization – Soka Gakkai and its affiliated political party, New Komeito (often simply called “Komeito”).
Where LDP conservatives found common cause the Unification Church’s anticommunism and reactionary politics, Komeito’s pacifist inclinations have instead put a break on a lot of the LDP’s more stridently conservative priorities like constitutional revision and more extensive remilitarization. Yet there’s been no interest in booting them, regardless of the disagreements, because frankly the LDP wouldn’t be able to achieve its electoral majorities without them. But if that electoral machine were to fray – and there are growing signs that it might – then the dynamic would change significantly, and with massive implications for the future of Japanese politics.
Soka Gakkai is a relatively young Buddhist organization founded in 1930 that now counts roughly 8 million members in Japan and more than 4 million more international members, including retired Italian penalty kick-misser Roberto Baggio. For a country where “there remains a great reluctance about discussing spirituality or religion in the public sphere,” Soka Gakkai’s overt presence, even evangelism, and active political presence have led it to be viewed with suspicion by many Japanese – the direct comparisons with the Unification Church are obvious, but deserve their own treatment.
The group’s political wing, Komeito, was founded in 1964. The party has been formally independent since the 1970s to remain notionally consistent with Japan’s laws regarding the separation of church and state, but the religious group and the political party remain close regardless. Maybe unsurprisingly for a political party grounded in Buddhism, they support pacifism and emphasize economic bread-and-butter issues to their political base of homemakers and suburbanites.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Komeito has often saved the LDP from itself
Komeito has been a member of the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1999 and as a coalition partner, it is meticulous, even zealous, in its electoral organizing and is reliable in providing the LDP with additional seats. Levi McLaughlin, a professor at North Carolina State University who has spent years studying Soka Gakkai and Komeito, describes its election machine, writing that “No other interest group – the construction industry, agricultural collectives, teachers’ unions, the Japan Communist Party, or any other constituency – out-mobilizes Soka Gakkai when it comes to electoral politics.” Importantly, Soka Gakkai doesn’t just mobilize votes for Komeito, but for its LDP coalition partner. In fact, Indiana University’s Adam Liff estimates that this partnership helped elect almost a quarter of LDP’s single-member seats in 2014. In exchange, Komeito gets a seat in the ruling coalition and since 2012 the cabinet post in charge of the influential Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) (which includes control of the Japan Coast Guard) goes to a Komeito member.
Komeito’s influence has had a meaningful direction on the LDP’s governance. Komeito frequently describes itself as an “opposition within the ruling coalition,” selling its role as the only political party capable of putting the breaks on the LDP’s revisionist ambitions. Komeito has often pushed the LDP towards the center-left, particularly on economic issues like issuing stimulus payments to low-income households during the COVID-19 pandemic or measures to offset the impact of the consumption tax hike. Incidentally, measures such as these are popular throughout Japan’s electorate, bringing the coalition closer to what the Japanese median voter is interested in. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Komeito has often saved the LDP from itself.
But for reasons like the aging of the party base and changing electoral patterns, the Komeito electoral machine is starting to fray. Not yet critically, but it’s starting to show cracks that weren’t once there and it’s worth thinking through what happens when Komeito can’t deliver seats to the LDP like it used to and if the LDP decides Komeito is no longer worth the trouble. LDP backbenchers have long grumbled about the relationship and how Komeito is supposedly holding them back and if the junior partner can’t bring in the votes like it once did, it could become more tempting for the LDP to go it alone.
Part of this is the result of Komeito’s relationship with the LDP – while Komeito may be effective at putting the breaks on the LDP’s bigger ambitions, it’s not capable of putting on the breaks entirely. Komeito’s eventual acquiescence to constitutional reinterpretation in 2015 and consumption tax hike in 2017 has led many Soka Gakkai members to hold back from their dutiful vote-gathering activities. The questions about Japan’s future defense posture, like the ongoing discussions about defense exports, will put only more pressure on Komeito to convince its supporters either of the necessity of a hardened defense posture or that they have once again held back the LDP from going even farther – neither will be easy, and Komeito’s supporters may be forced to ask themselves how much compromise they can accept for staying in the ruling coalition.
The problem for the LDP is there’s no one else that supply the votes like Komeito
In the Unified Local Elections in April 2023, 12 of Komeito’s 1555 candidates lost their races, the most since the modern party was founded in 1998. In the 2022 House of Councilors election, Komeito’s vote total fell short of its goal for 8 million votes, achieving only 6.18 million and struggling especially with younger voters and urban voters. This nods towards Komeito’s crisis with its own demographics – most of its supporters are elderly and religious and recruitment isn’t what it once was. Ikeda Daisaku, its hugely influential president, is 95 and there are doubts that anyone could suitably fill his role once he steps aside.
Sidelining Komeito wouldn’t necessarily be the smartest move for the LDP, even if it’s an ideologically tempting one. The problem for the LDP is there’s no one else that supply the votes like Komeito. A coalition with conservative opposition party Ishin no Kai may be tempting, especially for LDP conservatives, but they lack Komeito’s organization and may lose some of their appeal as anti-establishment mavericks if they join the ruling coalition. If nothing else, the LDP will lose Komeito as a restraining force and can, for better or worse, indulge its instincts on questions like defense policy or social conservative issues. What happens after that is an open question – LDP conservatives could indulge their instincts on constitutional revision or culture war issues, but almost certainly at the cost of public support and without the electioneering machine of Komeito to make up the difference. The LDP’s liberals could find their mettle and make renewed efforts to bring the LDP back to the center. Whatever happens, party politics will become a lot more fluid and unpredictable than it has been in almost three decades.
For now, the tradeoff – LDP votes for Komeito influence – makes too much sense for both sides to consider scrapping the arrangement. But if the calculus changes, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of the relationship between Komeito and the LDP will define the medium- to long- term future of Japanese politics.
Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.