New Komeito gropes for its own brand; LDP ties now nonissue

by Masami Ito

New Komeito, finding itself outside the power loop for the first time in a decade, must find a way to stand on its own feet and establish a distinct brand instead of trying to latch onto other parties, its newly appointed leader says.

“New Komeito’s achievements and policies got buried in the big wave of the ‘change in government power’ ” that catapulted the Democratic Party of Japan into control of the government, Natsuo Yamaguchi said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“A key goal for New Komeito is to find a way to demonstrate our fundamental nature, our characteristic.”

New Komeito and its long-dominant ruling bloc partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, were trounced in the Aug. 30 Lower House election. Not only did the pair lose their majority in the chamber, but then New Komeito leader Akihiro Ota and Secretary General Kazuo Kitagawa failed to retain their Diet seats.

Although New Komeito stood side-by-side with the LDP for about 10 years, Yamaguchi said he plans to focus on rebuilding his party instead of pursuing continued ties.

“The coalition was based on two major things — having control of the government and a majority in the Diet — but we lost both and I think it would be difficult to go back to that relationship,” Yamaguchi said. “New Komeito and the LDP are both up to our necks with efforts to rebuild instead of groping for a way to shore up our relationship.”

But the LDP may have other ideas. Last week, its newly elected president, Sadakazu Tanigaki, made Tadamori Oshima, who has a close relationship with New Komeito, secretary general.

A New Komeito executive said on condition of anonymity he thinks the LDP is trying to keep New Komeito close at hand. But the new leader does not have strong personal ties with the LDP and the same lawmaker said Yamaguchi would serve as a good opposition party leader.

And now that it is no longer in a coalition with the conservative LDP, New Komeito, backed by Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, may find it easier to strengthen its pacifist stance. In fact, analysts and insiders feel the party’s positions are more in line with those of the DPJ.

“People say we have similar policies with the current ruling party, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they completely match,” Yamaguchi said. “But if (our policies) are consistent, then it is possible for us to cooperate” with the DPJ.

One bill New Komeito has been continuously focusing on would allow foreigners with permanent residency to vote in local elections. The LDP-led bloc kept the bill on hold, but Yamaguchi said he plans to submit it during the extraordinary Diet session expected to open around the end of the month.

Many key DPJ lawmakers, including Hatoyama, favor granting foreigners local suffrage. But at the same time, the party also has many very conservative lawmakers who may shun a consensus.

“Japan guarantees permanent residency to foreigners who don’t have Japanese nationality and requires them to pay their taxes just like Japanese,” Yamaguchi said. “Voting rights for issues that are close to home, that are related to the lives and work in local areas — and pose no conflict with issues of sovereignty — should at least be granted.”

Yamaguchi stressed that “New Komeito needs to firmly establish its independence, (and focus on) what is in the interests of the people.”