The Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito recently marked 21 years of alliance, having ruled Japan as a coalition for 18 of those years. Now — faced with policy differences and generational changes, along with two key elections — those time-tested relations could be put under strain as never before and could herald a shift in the nation’s political landscape.

How has Yoshihide Suga’s leadership affected relations between the parties?

During the tenure of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Komeito faced pressure to support collective self-defense bills and other security-related legislation that Abe wanted but which upset Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist organization that forms Komeito’s key support base. Abe’s determination to revise the Constitution was also opposed by many in Komeito.

Under Suga, Abe’s successor, Komeito officials appear to be having an easier time. Soon after assuming office in September, the new prime minister drew applause from the party at its general assembly when he declared himself a fan of its politics.

It was efforts by Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s powerful secretary-general, that fostered the support Suga needed from various LDP factions to secure the party presidency and thus the prime minister’s office. Nikai has long had particularly close relations with Komeito’s senior leaders. He helped build the coalition back in 1999 as a Liberal Party executive when it involved three parties.

This month, the policy alignment between Suga and Komeito could be seen in the wording of a new missile defense directive. In a concession to Komeito, Suga’s Cabinet is avoiding phrasing that focuses on Japan’s ability to strike at an enemy base before that enemy launches missiles at Japan. Instead, the importance for Japan of strengthening its ability to deter attacks will be mentioned.

This is softer language from Suga’s government. Abe said just before leaving office in September that Japan needed to discuss whether it should acquire first-strike capability against enemy missile bases. But Komeito supporters were opposed, concerned about such an ability violating the Constitution.

How have the two parties been cooperating recently?

The parties’ local branches created headaches for their national leaders by being on opposite sides in Osaka during a merger referendum last month, but in addition to missile defense they managed to cooperate on raising medical fees for older people.

Despite opposition among many members of Komeito’s Osaka chapter to merging the city’s 24 wards, national Komeito leaders pushed the chapter to approve a second referendum on the issue.

Komeito Chief Representative Natsuo Yamaguchi (left) speaks next to LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai at a liaison meeting between the government and the ruling parties at the Prime Minister’s Office on Dec. 7. | KYODO
Komeito Chief Representative Natsuo Yamaguchi (left) speaks next to LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai at a liaison meeting between the government and the ruling parties at the Prime Minister’s Office on Dec. 7. | KYODO

The local LDP chapter was opposed to both the vote and the merger. But the moves were supported by Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) and its national party, Nippon Ishin no Kai. Komeito is cooperating with Osaka Ishin in local assemblies in the city to form a majority.

With the merger having been voted down, Komeito’s Osaka chapter must now rebuild its relationship with the local chapter of the LDP — which could have implications for the success of its candidates for Osaka-area Diet seats at election time.

The rift at the national level between Komeito and the LDP is also deepening. In an attempt to avoid passing a financial burden to younger generations, who will need to support a much older Japan with a smaller population in a few years, the government agreed on Dec. 10 to raise out-of-pocket payments for medical fees for people who are 75 or older.

Since 2001, those with an annual income of at least ¥2 million have been paying only 10% of their medical expenses. From fiscal 2022, they will be responsible for paying 20% of those fees.

The agreement is the result of a compromise with Komeito, which originally wanted the income threshold for the 20% rate to be ¥2.4 million a year. Under the LDP proposal it would have applied to those making at least ¥1.7 million annually.

In practice, Komeito’s proposal would have meant higher fees for about 2 million people, while the LDP proposal would have applied to around 5.2 million people.

The compromise was reached only after a long period of disagreement and tension between the two parties. It came after a rare late night negotiation between Suga and Komeito Chief Representative Natsuo Yamaguchi to forge a deal.

It appears the political calendar for next year has also played a role in Komeito’s stance toward the LDP. Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly elections must be held by July, and the next Lower House election by October.

Exempting more older people from paying higher medical fees and opposing stronger language on missile defense helps Komeito to shore up its political support base.

Why are the parties clashing in Hiroshima?

Former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who holds the seat for Hiroshima’s third electoral district, was forced to resign from the LDP earlier this year after being arrested on charges of vote-buying for his wife, Anri. She won a seat in the July 2019 Upper House election and remains a special member of Nikai’s faction.

Currently standing trial on those charges, Katsuyuki remains in the Diet but will not run for re-election.

The LDP’s prefectural chapter wants to field its own candidate to replace Kawai. But Komeito’s supporters were angered by the Kawai scandal and want to run a candidate from their party. Komeito has selected its deputy leader, 68 year-old Tetsuo Saito, to run for the post, setting up a clash between members of the local LDP chapter and senior Komeito officials.

Late last month, Yamaguchi conveyed to Suga his party’s decision to back Saito, and asked for the LDP support. But Shin Uda, secretary-general of the LDP’s Hiroshima chapter, suggested the LDP would field Rintaro Ishibashi, 42, a Hiroshima prefectural assemblyman.

Komeito Chief Representative Natsuo Yamaguchi (left) makes a campaign speech in support of the Osaka metropolis plan, backed by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura (right) and Mayor Ichiro Matsui (center), on Oct. 18 ahead of the Nov. 1 referendum. | KYODO
Komeito Chief Representative Natsuo Yamaguchi (left) makes a campaign speech in support of the Osaka metropolis plan, backed by Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura (right) and Mayor Ichiro Matsui (center), on Oct. 18 ahead of the Nov. 1 referendum. | KYODO

At the beginning of December, LDP secretary-general Nikai said that while he respected the feelings of the prefectural chapter, he wanted to coordinate with Komeito.

As of mid-December, it appeared that the LDP would, indeed, back Saito. That has angered not only the local LDP chapter but also its advisor, former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Kishida said he could not understand the reason for backing the Komeito candidate. He warned that close cooperation between the two parties over a candidate was particularly crucial for Hiroshima’s third district, because 100,000 votes were needed to secure victory.

In past elections, Komeito’s strategy has been to field only a few candidates for the 289 single-seat districts in the Lower House. Meanwhile, for the 176 proportional representation seats, Komeito has drawn between six and eight million votes.

The party backs LDP candidates in single district seats, where votes from Komeito supporters can make the difference between victory and defeat — especially if the margin of an LDP candidate’s victory is only several thousand votes.

What other challenges are Suga and Komeito likely to face in coming months?

The most immediate challenge for the working relationship between the parties could be changes in Komeito’s leadership.

Komeito senior officials like 68-year-old Yamaguchi are close to senior LDP officials like 81-year-old Nikai.

But Yamaguchi, who has led the party since 2009, promoted acting secretary-general Keiichi Ishii, 62, to the role of secretary-general in September in an effort to lay the groundwork for his succession as party leader.

With veteran Komeito heavyweights such as former party president Akihiro Ota, 75, and vice president Yoshihisa Inoue, 73, not expected to seek another term, Ishii is likely to find himself working without their influence with senior LDP members following the next election.

Ota was particularly close to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who campaigned on his behalf in 2017 and called him one of the main pillars of the party.

Meanwhile, within the LDP, it is not clear whether the younger generations of politicians have, or will want, the same kind of relationship between their party and Komeito as has been maintained since 1999.

Given Komeito’s power to amass millions of votes for LDP candidates, however, they may still decide that it is better to cooperate rather than run the risk of losing votes from Komeito supporters at election time.

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