Influential Liberal Democratic Party Diet member Wataru Takeshita made domestic headlines on July 8 when he formally announced that he would be retiring from politics. While Takeshita’s impending departure is unsurprising given his known esophageal cancer, it still stirred media outlets and prompted an emergency meeting of his LDP faction.
For outside observers, there are two questions that likely come to mind in response to Takeshita’s announcement: Who is he and why does his departure really matter?
There are some schools of thought that prefer to view Japanese politics as party-centric and monolithic. In other words, the LDP is the LDP and who is inside of it is not as important as the policies and decisions that emanate from the party writ large.
I do not subscribe to such thinking. Especially in Japan’s single party-dominant system, understanding who in that dominant party is influencing decision-making and how they do it is ever critical. It is important to remember that the LDP is neither full of right wing nuts nor enlightened centrists; rather, it has its share of both, along with everything in between.
It is key then to understand which of those people are shaping decisions on Cabinet appointments, policy agenda and other things that affect Japanese governance.
Thus, we must look at Takeshita’s departure as a matter of how it may affect future LDP policies and decisions. In this case, we are discussing an LDP heavyweight who leaves a vacuum in terms of personal influence and institutionalized leadership.
Wataru Takeshita is the younger brother of Noboru Takeshita, the former prime minister and a prolific “kingmaker” in the LDP. Noboru Takeshita formed the “Heisei Kenkyu-kai” faction that his younger brother now heads, and from it generated five of the last fourteen prime ministers — three of which served consecutively.
After Noboru Takeshita left politics, his younger brother remained, wielding influence as the steward over the LDP’s political stronghold in Shimane Prefecture. Wataru Takeshita has since earned a handful of Cabinet and party leadership appointments, most notably the LDP General Affairs Council chair.
In 2018, Takeshita moved to institutionalize his influence, usurping factional leadership from Fukushiro Nukaga. Nukaga’s laissez faire brand of politicking left his supporters wanting and opened the door for Wataru Takeshita to regain control of the faction his brother once used to pilot the LDP for a decade.
Takeshita attempted to use his newfound influence to back some of the dissenting voices in the LDP. Not least of whom was Shigeru Ishiba, the ever-popular LDP politician that challenged Shinzo Abe’s party presidency in 2018. In that race, Takeshita was the only LDP faction head to back Ishiba, in a move that put him in direct conflict with now-Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Foreign Minister Toshitsu Motegi, both of whom were Abe supporters and members of Takeshita’s faction.
Takeshita’s rising influence within the party met its demise with the revelation that he had cancer in 2019. He has since held onto his institutional roles, but the vacancies he will leave will empower other LDP politicians that might now have any chance of climbing the hierarchical ladder.
The timing of Takeshita’s retirement coincides with a period of LDP in-fighting ahead of both a party presidential election and a Lower House general election, making the impact of his departure even more significant.
For the first time since 2018, we will see a new faction head inside the LDP. This will come after the next Lower House election, as decided by his faction during its emergency meeting last Thursday. Who the faction decides will succeed Takeshita holds great significance for Japan’s political landscape, especially since there are at least a few prime minister-hopefuls in its ranks.
Factions matter in the LDP because they are critical for selecting who becomes the party president and hence who becomes prime minister. Unlike some parliaments throughout the world, the prime minister is not popularly elected, meaning it is the parliament that selects the prime minister. If a single party holds the majority, then that party alone can control who selects the nation’s leader.
A system like this privileges politicians that can secure intraparty support. In the case of the LDP, former Prime Minister and party heavyweight Kakuei Tanaka once said, “Politics is numbers, and numbers are power.” The institutionalized factions inside the LDP give a politician numerical backing, which is necessary for gaining that support and winning the party presidency.
That is why Takeshita took over for Nukaga in 2018: He had aspirations to wield more political influence. While health problems eliminated his prospects to go any further, three names in particular are critical for who might succeed him: Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and the former minister of the economy, Yuko Obuchi.
The world should watch closely what these individuals do given Takeshita’s departure, especially since Kato and Motegi have both made overtures toward post-Suga leadership. If one were to become the new faction head, they would instantly command the Party’s third largest faction, more than long-time prime minister-hopeful Fumio Kishida. For Kato and Motegi, they are also both close enough to Abe to win the support of his home faction, meaning that they would be able to disrupt other would-be prime ministers like Taro Kono, who comes from the party’s second largest faction.
For Obuchi, daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, becoming faction head would revitalize her political career. She was a rising star who fell from grace when she had to resign her post as economy minister owing to an election scandal. This could provide the turnaround she was looking for as she seeks to become the LDPs most prominent female politician.
Takeshita’s departure may be going unnoticed outside Japan, but it will have important reverberations inside the party. In a system where intraparty machinations drive so much of its leadership appointments and policy priorities, one cannot overlook what is going on in the wake of Takeshita’s retirement. After all, the waves it causes will continue to have ripple effects for the next few years to come.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is a special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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