Commentary / Japan

Factional politics remain a force in Japan

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Last week, Japanese media reported that former Foreign Minister and prime minister-hopeful Fumio Kishida intends to merge his Liberal Democratic Party faction with another LDP group that used to be led by former party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki. But what does this mean? Why does it matter? If it is so important, why don’t foreign news outlets report on these political moves?

Many foreign observers are either unaware of Japan’s factional politics or do not believe that they hold the same importance that they did 50 years ago. However, a merger of Kishida’s faction and Tanigaki group offers another example of the continued relevance of these groups within the governing party. The last seven years of evidence identifies a resurgence of factional politics under the current administration. This is meaningful when assessing the Japanese political landscape, especially with regard to Cabinet postings and the line of succession following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is not unusual for a political party to have cliques, blocs or other similar groups — it is just that in the LDP, those are institutionalized with formal membership and structure. The factions are as old as the party itself, starting with the five original groups that carried over from the former Liberal and Democratic parties. Every one of those five still exist in some form today, while others have come and gone.

Institutionally, LDP factions are the product of single-party politics and the electoral system. The ability for one party to control the government for a long period persisted in part because in the early stages of the postwar Diet, all of the anti-socialist elements of the government had to consolidate their power to oust left-wing forces. No center-left, centrist or right-wing party had the ability to do so on its own, so the Liberal Democratic Party formed in 1955 and took hold of the government. Nevertheless, different platforms and aspiring prime ministers within the party still existed, and these contributed to the emergence of factional politics within the LDP.

The electoral process, which limits campaign time and fundraising, further institutionalized factions. Younger, poorer candidates for Diet seats often flocked to affluent faction leaders who could stump for them in elections and support them financially. In return, the faction heads gained numerical advantage over intraparty rivals. Since the party president in the LDP is elected internally, the factions have significant influence over who is able to become party president, and thus, who becomes prime minister. Even then, factions continue to assert themselves within the government through appointments to Cabinet offices.

The number and strength of factions within the LDP have changed over time, with some splitting off to create new parties like Shinshinto and New Party Sakigake in the 1990s. Also, the advent of the single-seat electoral districts out of the 1994 electoral reforms enabled LDP lawmakers elected from these constituencies, like the popular Shinjiro Koizumi, to enjoy much more freedom as “independent” members of the party. Those politicians represent the new guard, but the LDP is still a party firmly rooted in heritage and tradition, within which factions remain ever-important.

A couple of facts reveal just how relevant factions are. First, since 1955, there has not been an LDP prime minister who secured the position without factional affiliation. Second, Cabinet postings have largely been based on factional strength; that is, if a faction commanded 20 percent of LDP seats in the Diet, it would receive roughly 20 percent of the available Cabinet positions.

It is important to note that factions have never exercised heavy influence over the development of LDP policy; rather, factions generally only affect policymaking as veto-players and agenda setters. Policy is still formulated by “policy tribes” known as “zoku,” and those groups cross factional boundaries. A prominent example of this is former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and his faction head Kishida. Onodera is far more hawkish than Kishida and has worked in the LDP’s research commissions on defense, which include members from various LDP factions.

So if not to develop policy, why have factions? While the importance of each role has changed over time, the core functions such as acting as checks to the party president and distributing information to faction members remain the same. The two most important functions are selecting a prime minister and negotiating Cabinet postings.

Strip away all of the political reforms, all of the rhetoric, and all of the high ideals, and at the end of the day the most important source of power in LDP intraparty politics is numbers. A politician needs numbers to become party president, to get party consensus on policy decisions and agenda setting, and to prevent defection that can threaten stable governance. Those numbers are attainable through personal relationships when the party is relatively small, but in a large party full of competing ideologies and prime minister-hopefuls, the institutionalized factions are the means to the end.

When Abe led the charge to take back control of the government from the Democratic Party of Japan, LDP factions were at their weakest. Shorty before the December 2012 Lower House election, the party held its own leadership race. In the past, candidates would either be faction heads or someone nominated by them. In 2012, there were five candidates: Abe, Shigeru Ishiba, Yoshimasa Hayashi, Nobuteru Ishihara, and Nobutaka Machimura. Only two of them were faction heads: Ishihara and Machimura. In fact, Abe broke ranks from his home Machimura faction to run for party presidency.

As soon as the presidential elections were over, traditional factional politics have gradually returned. There are now seven formal factions, and supporters of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga are contemplating making it eight.

While LDP independents comprised roughly 40 percent of party membership in 2012, that number is now in the teens. Further, in all of Abe’s Cabinet reshuffles, the apportionment of postings have been largely aligned with the relative strength of LDP factions. Reinforcing the factional politics element of these selections, allies have typically received a few extra billets when Abe is in a position of strength, while rivals gained extra postings when his administration was weakened by scandals or controversial policies.

Meanwhile, independents have received well-fewer Cabinet positions than their numbers in the LDP represented. For example, during the October 2015 Cabinet reshuffle, independents comprised 30 percent of the LDP but only received a paltry 5 percent of the postings.

So how does the latest factional move between the Kishida faction and the Tanigaki group affect Japanese politics? First, since the Tanigaki group is technically comprised of independents, it will reduce the number of LDP lawmakers without formal factional ties. It will also diminish Kishida’s autonomy over his faction. He may retain the numbers, but there will be growing pains in prioritizing Cabinet postings and agenda-setting. As for other impacts, it will be important to observe how the merger affects postings in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

Whatever the outcome may be for Kishida’s latest move, it is only the latest in a growing trend of factional politics within Japan’s ruling party. With critical leadership positions and policy agendas being influenced by these formal groups, it is important to recognize the continued relevance of factions in Japanese politics today.

Based in Niigata, Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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