Will the real Japanese opposition please stand up? (Hint: It’s all about the factions.)


Four years ago, Japan looked like it had finally moved toward a truly competitive party system after years of virtual one-party rule by the dominant Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP, or 自由民主党, Jiyū-Minshutō).Japan

But after a landslide LDP victory last December ushered former prime minister Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) back into office, the LDP once again controls over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Japan’s Diet (国会).  After Sunday’s House of Councillors elections, the LDP is overwhelmingly expected to re-take control of the upper house from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, or 民主党, Minshutō), giving Abe a much easier time in implementing policy, likely for the next three years.  The LDP might well even find that it controls over two-thirds of the upper house as well.

Abe (pictured above) swept into power, nearly decimating the DPJ that had governed Japan from 2009 through last December, on a platform of massive monetary and fiscal intervention to boost the Japanese economy in what’s become known as ‘Abenomics.’  With approval ratings over 70%, Abe seems to have succeeded, at least in the short-term, in boosting confidence in his party and his ability to stimulate Japan’s economy after over two decades of deflation and low growth.

Critics fear, however, that if Abe controls a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors as well, he’ll be in a position to push through amendments to Japan’s constitution, potentially paving the way for a controversial push for a more militarized Japan in the future.

Things are looking decidedly bleak for the Democratic Party.  Although only half of the seats in the House of Councillors are up for reelection, the DPJ’s grasp on power there is extremely narrow — it holds 106 seats to 83 seats for the LDP and 19 seats for the LDP’s more conservative, Buddhist ally, New Kōmeitō (公明党, Shin Kōmeitō).  Moreover, the Democratic Party would have been playing defense in this year’s elections regardless of its dwindling popularity — it will be defending 44 seats and other opposition parties will be defending 26 seats, while the LDP will be defending just 34 seats and New Kōmeitō will be defending just 10.

None of Japan’s other third parties seem capable of breaking through either.  The one party that seemed to have some momentum in December’s elections was the Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会, Nippon Ishin no Kai), a merger between Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto (橋下徹) and right-wing, nationalist former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原慎太郎).  In particular, it was the youthful Hashimoto’s charisma that seemed to propel the party to win 54 seats in the House of Representatives last December, giving it nearly as many seats as the DPJ (which fell back to just 57 seats).  But the party’s fortunes have collapsed over Hashimoto’s comments indicating that U.S. soldiers in Okinawa should be allowed to use prostitutes and that ‘comfort women’ — civilians that Japanese soldiers forced into sexual slavery during World War II — were a necessary evil at the time.

Polls indicate that virtually no party can stop the LDP’s projected sweep — one representative poll earlier this week indicated that the LDP would win 43% and New Kōmeitō would win 8%, while the Democratic Party, the Japan Restoration Party and two other third parties, the liberal reformist Your Party and the Japanese Communist Party would each win just 6%.  That result would essentially thrust Japan back to its norm of one-party rule, leaving the Democratic Party potentially permanently shattered and permitting Abe to push forward with a pro-nuclear energy policy (still controversial after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown) and otherwise implementing a more nationalist Japan.

Or would it?

To look closer at Japanese politics is to realize that even if the LDP wins a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, it won’t mean that Abe has grasped monolithic hegemony.

That’s because the LDP itself is comprised of several factions, a phenomenon that dates back to its founding in 1955 as a merger of several smaller parties, each with its own disparate ideology.  In essence, factions act as parties in miniature under the aegis of the LDP’s larger structure.  After Abe won the presidency of the LDP last summer, however, those factions have worked together with remarkable discipline to support Abe both through last December’s general election and through the first seven months of his government — not an easy task for a country where, since 2006, the average length of a prime minister’s government has been 380 days.

While it’s been relatively easy for the various LDP factions to support Abe’s massively popular spending spree, Abe’s future policies might meet with greater resistance.  For example, New Kōmeitō is both wary of Abe’s militarism and opposes Japan’s nuclear power.  Protectionists within the LDP are likely to challenge Abe’s push to join negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Abe may also face opposition to his plan to double Japan’s consumption tax.  That will become especially true if Abe’s massive bet on a shock-and-awe stimulus program doesn’t actually turn out to lift the Japanese economy in the long-term.

In some ways, it’s not difficult to think of the Democratic Party as yet another faction of the LDP than as a separate political party with a discrete ideological basis.  It’s true that, in contrast to the big-spending nature of Abenomics, the DPJ had pursued a much more fiscally prudent policy in office, and its leader since late December, Banri Kaieda (海江田 万里) is a former economy minister with a reputation as a fiscal hawk.  But neither party is identified with a truly consistent ideology like, say, the Republican and the Democratic parties in the United States.  Japan’s Democratic Party was formed in 1998 partly with large support from disgruntled LDP politicians, and one of the DPJ’s most important (and notorious) leaders, Ichirō Ozawa (小沢 一郎) came to the DPJ after a long career as a faction leader in the LDP (After losing sway within the DPJ during its time in government, Ozawa left that party too, and he now leads his own ‘People’s Life Party’).

So the Democratic Party’s landmark victory in 2009 was less the emergence of a new party than the victory of a competing set of governing elites — in the same way that no one really though in the 1980s that Italy’s Socialist Party or any other of the other pentipartito groups really offered a vast contrast with the hegemonic Christian Democratic Party.  Accordingly, if it turns out that Japan was perhaps too sanguine about the emergence of a truly multi-party Japan four years ago, the good news is that Japan has always had a competitive inter-party political marketplace.  Looking to the next three years of Japanese policymaking, Abe will face significant checks and balances from within the LDP’s factions.

Though Abe has pledged to reduce factionalism within the LDP, old habits die hard.  Each faction still has its own patronage system and fundraising base, and the faction’s membership ranks are growing, hopeful that Sunday’s election will swell their ranks even further.  At least five factions within the LDP now boast at least 30 members within the House of Representatives:

  • Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyūkai (83 members) is relatively nationalist on foreign affairs and is relatively liberal on economic affairs, and it supported former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) throughout the early 2000s when he implemented his privatization of the public-sector savings bank, Japan Post.  Its factional leader is Nobutaka Machimura (町村 信孝), who served as Koizumi’s foreign minister from 2004 to 2005 and also as Abe’s foreign minister in his previous 2006-07 stint as prime minister.
  • Heisei Kenkyūkai (51 members) is relatively pro-China and represents the old-school LDP tendency to back large-scale public works. Once led by former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (橋本 龍太郎), its current leader is Fukushiro Nukaga (額賀 福志郎), a three-decade member of the Diet who served as finance minister from 2007 to 2008, and who Abe tapped earlier this year as an envoy to South Korea for the purpose of soothing bilateral ties.
  • Kōchikai (42 members) is the faction of Japan’s current foreign minister Fumio Kishida (岸田 文雄), who is seen as relatively dovish on foreign affairs in contrast to Abe and other more nationalist LDP leaders.  Current defense minister Itsunori Onodera (小野寺 五典) is also a member of this faction. 
  • Ikōkai (34 members) is the faction of former prime minister and current finance minister Tarō Asō (麻生 太郎), who was prime minister during the 2008 global financial crisis and responded with a massive fiscal stimulus, though it wasn’t enough to keep the LDP from losing the subsequent 2009 general election.  Asō is allegedly in discussions to merge with a smaller faction, Banchō Seisaku Kenkyūjo, an 11-member group led by LDP vice president Tadamori Oshima (大島 理森). That could boost Asō’s role in the future, and it could perhaps position Asō to return as prime minister one day.
  • Shisuikai, with 32 members, is led by Toshihiro Nikai (二階 俊博), a Koizumi ally who headed the Diet committee that implemented Japan Post’s privatization, and who subsequently served twice as minister of economy, trade and industry.

Another smaller faction with just 15 members is Kinmirai Seiji Kenkyūkai, led by Nobuteru Ishihara (石原 伸晃), the son of the former Tokyo governor and the current environmental and nuclear crisis minister, is highly nationalist and aggressive on foreign policy.  Another group of unaffiliated LDP members considered an unofficial ‘faction’ supports Shigeru Ishiba (石破 茂), a popular figure who narrowly lost the 2012 LDP party presidential race to Abe, despite Ishiba’s greater popularity at the time among the Japanese public.  Abe appointed Ishiba as the party’s secretary-general following the contest. A former minister of defense in the Asō government, Ishiba is a relative hawk on foreign affairs, has argued recently that Japan is entitled to consider launching a preemptive strike against North Korea.  Both Ishiba and Nobuteru Ishihara are likely to support Abe if he makes a future push for a greater Japanese military capability.

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