Back in 1964, when the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai founded Komeito, many people looked on warily: They believed it violated the Constitution’s separation of religion and politics.

But in the week Komeito marked its 50th anniversary, observers say the party has successfully diluted its religious connotations and become a key player in politics.

“Komeito has changed its image,” said Steven Reed, a political scientist at Chuo University. “Komeito in 1964, it was this one thing. Komeito in 2014 is another thing.”

“And now, it appears that the main thing that Komeito and Soka Gakkai are interested in is to improve their images,” he said.

The party’s image revamp took place over the past 15 years after it became part of the then-Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition.

Political scientist Axel Klein of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, who specializes in Japan’s political system, said Komeito’s 15 years as a junior partner helped it shed its religious trappings.

“We hear over and over again from Komeito politicians that being a ruling party made it easier for them to approach new targeted groups,” Klein said, noting that Komeito’s July talks with the LDP on the prickly issue of collective self-defense were not held from the perspective of a religious party.

“I think in the next election, we will probably not hear any party saying ‘that’s a religious party,’ which is clearly so much different from five or 10 years ago, when there was a major story line that Komeito is a religious party and that’s why it’s unconstitutional,” he said.

Reed, Klein and others are authors of a book titled “Komeito — Politics and Religion in Japan,” which examines what they call the party’s understudied history.

Even though Japanese postwar politics cannot be understood without studying Komeito, there are few books about the party — those that exist are either promotional propaganda or harsh critiques, the two professors said.

“There is nothing really from a political science point of view. Some of the major books on Japanese politics ignored Komeito,” Klein said.

Soka Gakkai founded Komeito in November 1964 with the aim of promoting social welfare and pacifism.

After various scandals, including attempts by its leaders to stifle criticism, Komeito and Soka Gakkai in 1970 cut all official organizational ties with the party, which subsequently removed religious messages and language from its agenda.

Since the 1990s, Komeito has played a pivotal role in politics, Klein and Reed said.

In 1993, Komeito joined an eight-party coalition led by then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, helping to unseat the long-entrenched LDP.

The LDP then began attacking Komeito, blasting its ties with Soka Gakkai. But in 1999, Komeito, which had split in 1994 and partly merged with Shinshinto (New Frontier Party) before reuniting in 1998 to be dubbed New Komeito, decided to team up with the LDP. Komeito joined the ruling coalition to ensure its survival and protect Soka Gakkai’s legal status at a time when the LDP was campaigning against religious groups after the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, Klein said.

The LDP, which had suffered a serious setback in the 1998 Upper House poll, in turn needed the rock-solid voting support that could be provided by the Soka Gakkai-backed party, Klein and Reed said, noting many LDP politicians relied on it to survive. New Komeito could reportedly reel in an average of 20,000 votes for a Lower House single-seat constituency.

But as it changed, the pacifist party faced resistance from its core supporters, who were reluctant to compromise with the right-leaning LDP on national security. This came to a head when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet in July moved to reinterpret, rather than amend, the Constitution to sidestep Article 9’s ban on collective self-defense and bring Japan’s pacifism to an end.

New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi opposed Abe’s move, but the party ultimately accepted the change after haggling over the wording of potential legislation.

The party said it won a victory of sorts by placing limits on what the nation can do in terms of collective self-defense, but the move led the public and media to question its commitment to pacifist principles.

“They bargain hard, and they often lose,” Reed said, adding that the party needs to compromise to stay in the ruling coalition. “Komeito’s choice is to have no influence or some influence.”

Komeito has recorded some small victories, such as the lump-sum birth allowance system established 1994 to hand out around ¥300,000 to ¥400,000 to new mothers.

“The LDP is mostly there for the big policies, and Komeito is below the radar with really small things. And the LDP doesn’t oppose small things,” Klein said.

“If you want to understand Komeito, it’s better to look at housewives in families of middle and lower income. Because they are the major target group of Komeito policies.”

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