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New Komeito, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, re-elected Natsuo Yamaguchi as its chief during its party convention on Sunday. Yamaguchi, who has served the position since 2009, needs to realize he has the duty to renew the party’s commitment to the pursuit of peace and to check the excesses of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish policies on national defense.

The party was created in 1964 as a Buddhist political party backed by Soka Gakkai, the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization. Although it later shed its religious color, it has continued to present itself as a party striving to improve social welfare and pursue the no-war principle.

However, its track record as a coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party throws its commitment to the pacifist principles in doubt. It is all the more important for the party, as it marks the 50th anniversary of its founding in November, to make serious efforts to regain people’s trust by firmly upholding the values it stands for.

New Komeito joined the ruling coalition with the LDP in 1999 after the LDP suffered a serious setback in the Upper House in the previous year’s election. The party explained that it was entering the coalition to ensure stability in politics. But the coalition’s hold on power in both Diet houses — until it was broken in 2007 and the parties fell from power in 2009 — enabled the LDP to become more and more right-leaning.

The alliance enacted a law in 1999 officially designating “Kimigayo” as the national anthem and Hinomaru as the national flag. They also enacted a law the same year to set up the Constitutional Research Council in each chamber of the Diet, marking the first step paving the way for future amendments to the postwar Constitution.

In 2006, the two parties revised the Fundamental Law of Education with the aim of instilling patriotism in children and strengthening state control of education.

It cannot be denied that New Komeito, as partner in the LDP-led ruling alliance, has gradually shed its character as a party committed to pacifist principles.

The LDP-New Komeito coalition also expanded the Self-Defense Forces’ activities overseas. In 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the coalition enacted a law that enabled the Maritime Self-Defense Force to supply fuel to ships of the multinational force in the Indian Ocean.

In 2003, the coalition passed legislation enabling the SDF to carry out reconstruction assistance and air transport of goods and personnel for the multinational force in Iraq. These laws were designed so as not to go beyond the bounds of individual self-defense — the government’s long-standing position under its war-renouncing Constitution.

After the LDP-led alliance returned to power in 2012, New Komeito consistently opposed exercising the right to collective self-defense, which enables Japan to carry out military missions to help allies under attack even if it is not directly under attack. Although Yamaguchi had voiced his opposition to Abe’s attempt to change the government’s interpretation of Article 9 that banned exercising that right, the party eventually endorsed the July 1 decision by Abe’s Cabinet to change the interpretation to enable Japan’s participation in collective defense operations. This has marked a major departure from the nation’s postwar defense-only defense posture.

New Komeito justifies its move by saying that through its talks with the LDP, it has succeeded in placing limits on what Japan can do in collective self-defense, which it says still conforms to the nation’s postwar pacifist principles typically embodied in the posture. The Abe administration plans to submit bills, including one to revise the SDF Law, to the Diet to actually implement the Cabinet decision next year. New Komeito must strive to ensure that these legislative steps do not let Japan deviate from the principles and the posture.

Yamaguchi and other New Komeito leaders should realize that if the party fails in this effort, it will lose its raison d’etre.

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