Japan from the inside out

The jigsaw puzzle of Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 22, 2007

THOSE WHO ENJOY thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles would love the challenge of trying to create a single picture out of the jumble of Japanese politics. Imagine puzzle pieces capable of spontaneously changing shape. One minute they are a frustrating unmatched mess, the next minute they morph into a perfect fit, and a minute after that you find yourself working on a different puzzle altogether.

To give you an idea of what’s involved, here’s some surprisingly straight talk for a Japanese politician from Shizuka Kamei (first photo), one of the leaders of the People’s New Party.

Mr. Kamei addressed a party gathering on the 21st following the defeat of the incumbent candidate, backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in the recent Osaka mayoralty election. During his speech, he said:

“The LDP has survived on the narcotic of the Soka Gakkai, but they’ll find themselves in big trouble when the drug wears off. They are powerfully addicted, and when they have to go cold turkey, the withdrawal is painful.”

Referring to the LDP, he said:

“It’s all over. There’s nothing they can do. They’ve always been weak in the big cities, and now have to rely on external factors for an election (victory). (Literally, “rely on the wind”)

Soka Gakkai

Specifically, he was referring to the perfunctory assistance given to the LDP by Soka Gakkai in the election campaign, which represents a change from previous campaigns.

The straight talk was neither his critique of the Liberal Democratic Party, nor his prediction of doom for them. There is an element of truth in what he says (as well as an element of overheated rhetoric.) Rather, it was his direct reference in such shocking terms to Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization, instead of the New Komeito Party, their de facto political arm.


A satisfactory description of the religious group, the party, and their role in Japanese society and politics would require an article or paper much longer than is possible here. To summarize, however, Soka Gakkai is an activist group originating from Nichiren (subject of this Ampontan post), and has an international organization with members that include famous musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

The controversial organization is frequently criticized for an extreme emphasis on recruitment, relentless attacks on opponents, and such cultish practices as indoctrination and peer pressure. When subject to scrutiny by the Japanese press, they do not believe in turning the other cheek.

Soka Gakkai formed the Komeito Party, which later evolved into the New Komeito Party. This evolution included a shift in political stance from left of center to right of center. The organization claims it doesn’t contribute financially to the New Komeito Party, and that they are entirely separate. This has been disputed, particularly the latter assertion.

What is indisputable, however, is their ability to mobilize a formidable volunteer army to hit the streets and phone banks in support of the New Komeito and its allies in election campaigns. The party formed an alliance with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2000, and since then their votes and support have been crucial in keeping the LDP in power. In turn, the New Komeito has become part of the governing coalition, and one member has a Cabinet portfolio.

Because Soka Gakkai insists there is no formal connection between itself and New Komeito, and they do not hesitate to cause unpleasantness for those who criticize them, it was an unusually bold step for Kamei to claim that the LDP is addicted to the support of Soka Gakkai itself. The safer course would have been simply to cite the support of New Komeito. Everyone in Japan would have connected the dots immediately.

So by disparaging the group, Mr. Kamei could cause himself trouble, both personally and politically.

There are also reasons that some might raise their other eyebrow at Mr. Kamei’s comment. Until the 2005 lower house election campaign, he was under the covers in the same political bed with Soka Gakkai—and he could find himself back in bed with the group in a different hotel in the not-too-distant future. Here’s why.

Political Background

The People’s New Party is a splinter group created by those LDP Diet members opposed to former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization plan in 2005. Their opposition most likely did not stem from altruistic motives, but from political ties to the former Posts and Telecommunications Ministry.

The party itself exists as a vehicle for those former LDP members excommunicated by Mr. Koizumi who chose not to return when invited to do so by his successor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (which immediately put a big dent in his popularity ratings). The party generally stands for the status quo ante, despite their superficial reform rhetoric and informal alliance with the primary opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. They have a handful of members in both houses of the Diet (and four of the party’s nine officers are named Kamei).

So when Mr. Kamei talks about the LDP being addicted to the Soka Gakkai, he’s not talking trash. He shared the same needle with those junkies in the same shooting gallery.

Now recall the vaudeville routine earlier this month in which Democratic Party President Ichiro Ozawa (second photo), the head of the largest opposition party, discussed a grand coalition with the LDP, only to have the talks fall apart when the other ranking DPJ members rejected the idea out of hand. Mr. Ozawa resigned his position in a snit during a nationally televised news conference. From the same podium, he stated that the party lacks the necessities to form a government and said they were unlikely to win enough seats during the next election to take power anyway.


Mr. Ozawa often seems as if he would sooner cook up a backroom political plot with somebody—anybody—rather than get involved with anything as pedestrian as formulating policy. Therefore, his party, apprehensive that he would take some of the newer members with him on his way out the door and cut a deal with the LDP, asked him to return. (In fact, party members have asked him to publicly state exactly what happened at those coalition discussions. He hasn’t bothered to tell them yet.)

So, three days later, Mr. Ozawa made up with his former comrades and returned to his old job. Off to a fresh start, the party issued a new set of election objectives. Politicians that they are, they still have to act as if they’re going to win the next election, so that was cited as Objective #1.

Do the Pieces Fit?

Objective #3 drew the most attention, however. In that scenario, the DPJ would wind up with the most seats in the lower house of the Diet, but still not enough to form a government. It is widely speculated that Mr. Ozawa’s intention in that event (and assuming the strength of the other parties remained constant) would be to try to form a coalition with—you guessed it, New Komeito and their shadow backers, Soka Gakkai.

This is not out of the question. New Komeito has said in the past they weren’t permanently wedded to the LDP and would be willing to listen to any seductive offers by the DPJ. The New Komeito might feel more at home with the latter party because their policy interests tend more toward social welfare than do those of the LDP, and they are not anxious to amend the peace clause of the Constitution. Further, New Komeito might have felt slighted because the LDP initiated coalition talks with Mr. Ozawa without consulting them beforehand.

For a DPJ-New Komeito governing coalition to come into being, there would have to be a swing of about 100 Diet seats from the LDP to the DPJ (out of 480 total), which is unlikely to happen in one election cycle. Observers suspect Mr. Ozawa is planning his moves two or three elections down the road.

This coalition government would be a hugely entertaining scenario to those who have a taste for Keystone Kops comedies. The DPJ is already a walking contradiction, incorporating both former Socialists and those who are Nanjing Massacre/Comfort Women deniers. The party also informally discusses strategy with the Social Democrats (the former Socialists themselves) and Mr. Kamei’s People’s New Party. Now, consider the possibilities if the New Komeito/Soka Gakkai were added to the mix. They could probably charge admission to their strategy meetings and sell the rights for live broadcasts.

One suspects that Mr. Ozawa would enjoy presiding over this three-ring circus more than actually overseeing Japan’s governance. Considering the personalities and parties involved, a coalition, either formal or informal, might not last much longer than the nine months of the last such opposition-led coalition government.

Mr. Ozawa was the man behind the curtains pulling the strings in those days, too.

Regardless, the potential permutations and shape shifting that could occur over the next five years in the jigsaw puzzle of Japanese politics are fascinating.

It’s a shame that the pieces are unlikely to fit together well enough to create a picture of good government for the Japanese people, however.

Here’s an article on Soka Gakkai and Japanese politics, and here’s another for good measure.

One Response to “The jigsaw puzzle of Japanese politics”

  1. Soka Gakkai… a rich source of speculation and conspiracy theory (some of which may be true). I wonder Soka Gakkai will collapse or decline on the death of their leader. I guess so since it seems to be a cult of personality. At his age, we won’t have long to find out.

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