The transition to 2020 is significant for many reasons, but politically it marks the beginning of the third decade of the political alliance between the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

Now in the 21st year of the formal coalition, opinions are mixed on the implications of this relationship. Some say Komeito has acted as little more than a rubber stamp for LDP policies. In security matters, however, the junior partner’s influence is quite clear.

Despite its relatively small numbers within the coalition, Komeito has exercised a disproportionate level of power in areas where consensus among LDP factions is fractured; namely, the realm of security. We saw it in the late 1990s and early 2000s with new security legislation, in 2014-2015 with the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, and we will continue to see it heading into the 2020s — namely every time Abe mentions “constitutional amendment.”

Komeito is successful in the realm of security for two reasons. The first is obvious: The LDP leans on Komeito for Diet votes and election support.

The second is less transparent to outside observers, but security is the policy area with the least consensus within the LDP. The party is comprised of seven formal factions whose leaders espouse different policy priorities.

Spread throughout these factions are doves and hawks, as well as those who would rather spend the party’s political capital on something other than security. The absence of consensus affords Komeito maneuver space within the LDP’s security policy designs — space they have employed to great effect.

The first time Komeito acted as a security watchdog was part of the genesis of the coalition: Diet deliberations over the implementing legislation for the 1997 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. The defense guidelines are the framework for alliance roles, missions and capabilities, and the 1997 version set forth responsibilities for the Japanese government not previously held in the postwar era. This required a new set of legislation that earned the moniker, the “new guidelines-related laws.”

When the Diet convened special committees in both chambers in 1999 to discuss those laws, the LDP needed the support of the opposition Komeito. The LDP held a majority in the Lower House but only 41 percent of the Upper House. This means they had neither the numbers to pass the law through the Upper House nor the supermajority in the Lower House to overturn an Upper House decision. The LDP needed to negotiate with Komeito to pass the legislation.

Komeito’s biggest objection to the new guidelines-related laws was the area in which the Self-Defense Forces would operate. Their mantra in Diet deliberations became “restriction on geographical area,” which was meant to limit just how far the SDF could go to execute military functions such as search and rescue, noncombatant evacuation, mine-sweeping, maritime interdiction and other operations.

What resulted was a restriction of operations to Northeast Asia, and only in circumstances where the Diet could confirm an “important influence” on Japan’s own security. So firm were these interpretations that when the Koizumi administration sought to deploy SDF units to provide logistic and engineering support for coalition operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the LDP had to push through extraordinary (i.e., nonpermanent) legislation through the Diet.

The second time that Komeito notably flexed its coalition muscle was in the July 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9. Prior to the reinterpretation, the LDP and Komeito held consultations on the scope of the Cabinet decision, followed by a formal panel to discuss the limits of how they would codify this in law.

After a series of meetings, the panel produced a treatise titled “Concrete Direction for the Development of Security Legislation,” which served as the instructional document for bureaucrats drafting the implementing legislation. As Komeito boasted on its website, the result was a situation where the Japanese still could not exercise collective self-defense in a manner indistinguishable from individual self-defense.

Komeito did not stop with the panel. Shortly after the Cabinet decision on Article 9, Komeito lobbied to get one of its members to become a parliamentary vice minister of defense to oversee the legislation’s drafting. Hirotaka Ishikawa was the first Komeito member ever to hold that position, and he was one of the most heavily involved parliamentary vice ministers (who often take a more ceremonial approach to their responsibilities). He routinely engaged with bureaucrats, sat in on policy discussions and questioned decision-makers within the ministry responsible for drafting the laws. Ishikawa remained in that role until October 2015 — the month after the security laws passed the Diet.

We continue to see Komeito’s influence in major security policy decisions, especially the one that has most Japan-watchers intrigued: constitutional amendment. Abe has already bowed to Komeito’s expectations. Rather than pitch the proposal that his own party drafted in 2012, Abe has instead championed the language Komeito had signaled as appropriate: the addition of a third paragraph to recognize the constitutionality of the SDF. Despite opposition from LDP players, Abe has held firm on this, understanding that the numbers from Komeito are vital to any hope he has of passing an amendment proposal through the Diet.

So, although Abe has once again called for his party to build consensus for constitutional amendment, he does so with his junior coalition partner already in mind. In the unlikely event that he ever gets the LDP to bend on his proposal, Abe will still have that additional layer of negotiation with Komeito, which, although being small in size, has proven to be David to the LDP’s Goliath on several occasions.

It is important to note that all these activities have been in broad security policy changes that require legislative action. Where Komeito’s influence is weak is in Cabinet decision-making. While Komeito has traditionally maintained at least one Cabinet minister, the near-term decision-making that may happen at the ministry or Cabinet levels favors the stronger coalition partner. This means that in crisis management and responses to immediate changes to the security environment, Komeito has difficulty wielding meaningful influence.

This record over the past two decades tells us four things. First, Komeito has a vested interest in security, in some cases more so than major LDP players. Second, at least in the security realm, Komeito can affect Japanese policymaking in significant ways. Third, Komeito’s influence is most pronounced in any security decisions requiring Diet deliberation. Fourth, Komeito’s influence is limited in near-term decision-making that may be done at the Cabinet level. Taken in aggregate, this suggests that in the third decade of their coalition, Komeito will remain relevant to Japan’s security policy debates and has implications for several issues in the present.

For near-term decision-making, Komeito will continue to wield little influence. Decisions such as whether to dispatch SDF elements to the Persian Gulf or how to manage annual budget allocations will continue to rest heavily on the Cabinet and the bureaucracy. As the issues extend in scope and legislative requirements, Komeito’s ability to shape decision-making grows.

For foreign militaries seeking formal security agreements with Japan that must be ratified in the Diet, it is important to recognize potential veto players within Komeito that may be influencing the process. This will be especially salient for countries named in the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines, such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the Philippines.

Those concerned with constitutional amendment should understand that Komeito will limit how far the LDP can take it. Komeito may halt the process before it starts in earnest. Even if the LDP manages to cobble together the support it needs to pass it through the Diet and win a public referendum, the actual policy implications will be limited as Komeito will invariably have a hand in the implementing legislation that would necessarily follow.

All these conclusions are derived from the well-precedented activities from the past two decades. Even though Komeito is limited in just how far it can go as the junior partner in the coalition, it has represented an active and important player shaping Japan’s security practice. Whether that is for better or worse is in the eye of the beholder, but any observer who hopes to understand Japanese security in the new decade should be keeping an eye on the party.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan.

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