National / Politics

Ahead of Upper House vote, Komeito and Abe remain apart on revision of pacifist Constitution

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touts constitutional revision as the focal point of Sunday’s Upper House election in stump speeches for Liberal Democratic Party candidates, that topic is conspicuously absent from campaign speeches by the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito.

Instead, Komeito candidates are mostly telling voters it’s their party that has ensured LDP-led policies are providing direct benefits to voters regardless of their age or income.

“Komeito worked to get the laws changed so that cellphone charges will now be cheaper. This is an issue that was of great concern to young people. In addition, Komeito’s efforts helped make the recent Group of 20 Osaka Summit a success. With the 2025 World Expo now coming, I will work with the Diet to ensure it, too, is a success,” said Hisatake Sugi, 43, a Komeito candidate running for re-election in Osaka.

Komeito candidates have largely avoided speaking directly about their views on constitutional revision in their public appearances. In fact, constitutional revision isn’t among its four major Upper House campaign platforms, underscoring the divide among the ruling coalition parties over the issue.

Komeito says it’s open to adding less controversial clauses that would reflect the changing times rather than wholesale revision. But Komeito and its main support group, the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai, which claims over 8.2 million members nationwide, has long been strongly opposed to revising Article 9, the war-renouncing clause through which Abe and the LDP want to clarify the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces.

In May 2017, Abe made headlines when he said he wants to see such a revision to the Constitution come into force in 2020.

The prime minister, whose term as LDP president expires in September 2021, hopes to speed up talks in the Diet on constitutional revision after the election.

But Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi is skeptical, saying there is no national consensus yet on the issue.

“Most Japanese accept the SDF. What’s the purpose of writing them into the Constitution?” Yamaguchi told reporters in Tokyo earlier this month.

Abe is well aware of Komeito’s differing position on the issue.

When he stumped for an LDP candidate in Fukuoka on July 11, Abe made sure to bring up the need to revise the Constitution. But when Abe campaigned for Komeito candidate Rokuta Shimono, 55, on the same day in the prefecture, he was mum on the issue.

“The coalition government has accomplished many things, and it’s Komeito that makes the policies strong. The LDP-Komeito coalition will keep its promises,” Abe said, emphasizing the party’s commitment to health and social welfare benefits for low-income individuals.

Of the 245-seat Upper House, 124 seats are up for election on Sunday. The LDP-Komeito coalition needs to win at least 53 seats to retain a simple majority, and the LDP could command a majority by itself if it wins at least 67 of the 124 seats.

But if Abe wants to push forward his pet goal of constitutional revision, the LDP-Komeito coalition, pro-constitutional revision Nippon Ishin, and one or two small opposition parties that favor constitutional revision need to win 85 seats to retain a two-thirds “supermajority” needed to make it happen.

Even then, constitutional revision is not guaranteed.

“Even if the two-thirds majority is surpassed, constitutional revision won’t simply proceed. In the end, because there will be a nationwide referendum, the LDP won’t be able to force the matter,” noted Koji Nakakita, a professor at Hitotsubashi University and expert on contemporary Japanese politics and political history.

While Komeito is adamant about not pushing constitutional revision during the campaign, losses might force the party to change tactics after the election.

The Kansai region has long been known as the one place in Japan where election victories were certain for Komeito thanks to the strong regional presence of Soka Gakkai.

But the party finds itself on the defensive as never before as it battles Nippon Ishin no Kai candidates in tough Kansai races. Seven Komeito candidates, including party leader Yamaguchi, are running for district seats in Saitama, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures, while six more are running for proportional representation seats.

Yamaguchi’s Tokyo seat is considered safe, but Komeito is struggling in western Japan, especially in Hyogo, where the party’s candidate, former diplomat and newcomer Mitsuo Takahashi, is in a tight race for one of three seats with Nippon Ishin incumbent Takayuki Shimizu, 45, a former TV news anchor running for a second term.

“For our party, the Hyogo district race is the toughest,” Yamaguchi said just before the campaign kicked off.

Komeito is still reeling from the shock of losing a series of local elections in April to rival Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), Nippon Ishin’s local political group.

Osaka Ishin candidates beat ruling coalition- and opposition-backed candidates for the Osaka governor’s and mayor’s offices and won a majority in the Osaka Prefectural Assembly in April. Osaka Ishin also won the Sakai mayoral election last month.

Those victories have boosted the confidence of Nippon Ishin as it challenges the ruling parties in several districts, including Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

Thus, Komeito finds itself caught between a resurgent Nippon Ishin, an LDP that is ramping up its efforts to attain constitutional revision, and its Soka Gakkai supporters. But with Abe due to step down in September 2021, some experts suggest Komeito might decide to simply stall on the issue of constitutional revision until then.

“The best option for Komeito may well be to run out the clock on Abe. The present campaign manifesto seems to support this view: constitutional reform can be found on the last of 42 pages and the party summarizes its position simply by saying: ‘It should be discussed carefully from now on,'” said Axel Klein, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen who has written extensively about Komeito.