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Komeito, the third largest political party in Japan, is striving not to antagonize but to be friends with as many rival groups as possible in a determined bid to win in the Upper House election scheduled for this summer. The principal reason for pursuing this tactic, which has been described by some as “omni-directional diplomacy,” is to give added color to the 80th anniversary this year of the founding of its parent organization, Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist lay organization that claims to have followers among 8 million households in Japan.

As the political arm of Soka Gakkai, Komeito was a junior partner in the previous coalition government with the Liberal Democratic Party. Lately, Komeito has made various moves that are interpreted by political observers as signs of it trying to be friendly with rival parties.

For some time from the beginning of March, Yuichi Ichikawa, former Komeito secretary general, stopped making public appearances at the party’s official functions. On Jan. 18, Ichikawa, who had retired from politics in 2003, made a political comeback by being appointed as the party’s “permanent adviser.” Ichikawa is known to have close relations with Ichiro Ozawa, all-powerful secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan.

It seems that Ichikawa’s disappearance is camouflage meant to give the impression that Komeito is distancing itself from the DPJ, which has been hard-hit by political funds scandals surrounding Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Ozawa.

Behind the scenes, however, Ozawa met secretly with Einosuke Akiya, who was head of Soka Gakkai from 1982 to 2005, on Feb. 26. It is suspected that they discussed close collaboration between the DPJ and Komeito in preparation for the Upper House election. Although leaders of both parties deny such a meeting ever took place, rumors have it that it was attended by Azuma Koshiishi, head of the DPJ Upper House caucus, and possibly by Ichikawa himself.

There is also an interpretation that Ichikawa’s comeback is aimed at blocking Junya Yano, who was chairman of the party from 1986 to 1989 but retired from politics in 2003. Yano, in a lawsuit in 2008, demanded that Komeito pay him ¥55 million in compensation for forcing him to suspend his activities as a political commentator.

Observers point to two factors that have led the Komeito leadership to present the party as distancing itself from the DPJ. One is that a majority of Komeito veteran lawmakers have a strong allergy to Ozawa, who they say is too dictatorial a politician. The other is that the party is still not sure if it wants to dissociate itself from its former ally, the LDP. Conversely, the LDP cannot afford to lose support from Komeito altogether in the upcoming election.

On March 9, leaders of the LDP and Komeito met at a Tokyo hotel. LDP Secretary General Tadamori Oshima complained to his Komeito counterpart Yoshihisa Inoue about the latter’s campaign to set up a multiparty panel to discuss a total ban on political contributions from corporations and other organizations. The LDP opposes such a ban.

Oshima is worried not only about a possible loss of collaboration with Komeito on contributions and other issues. What the LDP fears most is the consequences of Komeito’s decision not to support LDP candidates in the Upper House election.

Although Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi hinted March 14 that his party would not support those running on the LDP ticket, he at the same time admitted that on local levels, it would be impractical for the two parties to do away with “community-based human relationships.”

According to a Komeito lawmaker, cooperation with the LDP is indispensable if Komeito wants to have LDP candidates call on voters to vote for Komeito in proportional representation and at local assemblies. Komeito cannot ignore LDP members, who still have influence on local administrative matters that directly affect Soka Gakkai members. This leaves Komeito in the difficult position of wanting to move closer to the DPJ while at the same time be friendly with the LDP.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Komeito is trying to establish cooperation with a minor party, Your Party or YP (Minna no To), in local elections. The YP is headed by Yoshimi Watanabe, who revolted against the LDP leadership and broke away in January 2009.

One influential Komeito leader admitted that if Komeito is to form a coalition with the DPJ after the Upper House election, it has to prove itself to be a viable political force by winning in the forthcoming election. That explains why Komeito is so anxious to promote its “omni-directional diplomacy” of enhancing ties with other rival groups.

Perhaps the best example of Komeito leaning toward the governing DPJ may be that its lawmakers cast affirmative votes on two major legislative bills sponsored by Hatoyama and his ruling party: a bill to provide monthly allowances to families with children and another to make high school education free. The LDP opposed both.

Another sign, according to observers, is the resignation of Takenori Kanzaki as a member of the Lower House. Kanzaki, who headed Komeito from 1998 to 2006, served as the chief architect of the coalition with the LDP, which lasted from 1999 to last year. He had long sought to resign for health reasons, but the party leadership would not allow him to do. The fact that his wish has now been granted is interpreted as a message to the DPJ that Komeito is no longer tied to its former partner.

On Dec. 28, Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper, carried this big headline: “The 80th anniversary of the foundation is coming. Victory, victory, grab a victory!” Soka Gakkai will celebrate the 80th anniversary of its founding on Nov. 18. To crown the anniversary with a victory, Komeito has no choice but to promote friendly ties with as many rival political parties as possible.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering the Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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