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Earlier this month, after announcing that it would distribute ¥300,000 in cash to households that have lost a lot of income due to the coronavirus crisis, the government switched tack. In a highly unusual move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that, instead, it was going to distribute ¥100,000 per person regardless of income. The initiative came at the strong request of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner Komeito, and highlighted the tensions in an alliance now more than 20 years old.

What is Komeito’s basic policy platform and what are some major differences with the Liberal Democratic Party?

Komeito was formed in 1964 as a nominally independent political party by the Nichiren Buddhist lay movement Soka Gakkai. Today, it has 57 members in the Diet. The party’s supporters are traditionally lower and lower-middle class workers, and Komeito has positioned itself as the party of pacifism, social welfare and humanistic socialism.

In the July 2019 Upper House election, it ran on a platform of free education through high school and more child day care facilities. Komeito also said it was aiming for a minimum wage of ¥1,000 per hour to be in place in at least half of the nation’s prefectures by the end of this year. While other parties make similar promises, Komeito has a record of actually helping getting the related legislation passed.

Komeito’s major policy difference with the LDP is over constitutional revision, especially of the so-called no war clause, Article 9. In the 1960s, Komeito opposed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and said the Self-Defense Forces violated the Constitution.

By the early 1980s, it had reversed its position on both issues. However, despite recent efforts by the Abe administration toward revision, opposition within Komeito and its Soka Gakkai supporters remains strong and the party’s stance is cautious and sometimes critical of Abe. In January, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi told reporters that Abe, as prime minister, does not have the right to decide the Constitution.

What is Komeito’s past and current relationship with Soka Gakkai?

Because it was set up by Soka Gakkai, Komeito’s early years were marked by criticism that its presence was a violation of Article 20 of the Constitution, which says that “no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.” In the early years, Soka Gakkai’s practices and reportedly aggressive campaign tactics on behalf of Komeito candidates also created a lot of public and political opposition to the party.

In response, Komeito agreed in 1970 to administer its own affairs without official oversight from Soka Gakkai and to prevent individuals in one organization from holding leadership positions in the other. However, most Komeito politicians are members of Soka Gakkai, while Soka Gakkai members continue to organize on behalf of Komeito candidates at election time. The party is funded by independent sources of revenue such as party paper subscriptions, whose readers are Soka Gakkai members.

Komeito’s position on the separation of church and state is that Article 20 “was never intended to prohibit a citizen or religious organization from participating in the political process.” Subsequent government pronouncements over the years have affirmed that basic view.

As to its current relationship with Soka Gakkai, Komeito says it continues to brief the group on the latest policy issues and political developments, but at meetings which are open to the media and “are strictly for informational purposes.” Nevertheless, Soka Gakkai’s views, especially of its women’s division, which often provides campaign support, are carefully considered by Komeito lawmakers.

When did the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito tie up, and why?

Despite their political differences, the two parties joined forces in October 1999, along with a third group, the now-defunct Liberal Party headed by heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa. The purpose was to ensure an LDP-led majority in both houses of the Diet with the two smaller parties. For Komeito, it was a question of survival. Due to a 1994 change that introduced a single-seat system, the existence of smaller parties was at stake because the change benefited large parties.

In July 1998, the LDP lost its Upper House majority, and to break the legislative gridlock and form a majority, the LDP began discussions with Komeito about a coalition government. Talks between the three parties lasted throughout 1999, before an agreement was reached in October. Ozawa’s group would pull out of the coalition in 2000, but Komeito would remain.

Was the run-up to the agreement a smooth process?

There was opposition within the LDP to the merger, due to policy differences and the fact that Komeito had actually joined an Ozawa-led coalition government in 1993 that was formed in direct opposition to the LDP.

But facing legislative gridlock, a couple of LDP heavyweights moved in. Hiromu Nonaka, a powerful LDP secretary-general dubbed the “shadow shogun” at the time for his behind-the-scenes influence, was one of the main backers of Komeito’s entrance into the ruling coalition. Another powerful LDP figure, Makoto Koga, who retired as a lawmaker in 2012 but serves as the honorary chairman of the LDP faction whose chairman is current LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, also backed the group.

Thanks to their influence, Nonaka, Koga and other LDP supporters of a coalition with Komeito won out.

How do the parties cooperate at election time?

In most single-seat constituencies, Komeito doesn’t field a candidate. Instead, the party asks that voters support the LDP candidate. In turn, the LDP calls for people to vote for Komeito under the proportional representation system. The LDP is generally stronger in rural areas, which helps Komeito candidates. In turn, Komeito generally has more support in urban areas, where they have a few single seat representatives. They can offer their support to other urban-based LDP candidates.

What prompted the standoff between Abe and the Komeito leadership over the cash handout?

There had been growing friction between Komeito and the Abe administration over the prime minister’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sat in on a regular weekly meeting of senior LDP and Komeito officials in March to discuss Abe’s actions and relay Komeito’s concerns to the prime minister.

While Suga and Abe had been close, there were worries, especially in Komeito, that Abe was distancing himself from Suga, who is close to Komeito and Soka Gakkai. Suga is thus playing a role similar to the one once played by Nonaka and Koga, that of a conduit between the two parties.

But with recent power struggles reducing Suga’s presence in the Prime Minister’s Office and Abe going his own way, Yamaguchi made a surprise visit to Abe on April 15 to push for the payout. Otherwise, Yamaguchi hinted, the LDP-Komeito coalition could be finished. While Abe’s agreement to Komeito’s plan may have reduced immediate frictions, the cooling Suga-Abe relationship could further strain the two-decades-old coalition in the weeks to come.

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