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Inside Japanese politics

Japan's political parties lose sway under stronger prime ministers

LDP and Komeito see influence ebb as decision-making grows more centralized

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, right, and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Komeito, a member of the ruling coalition, is hurrying to build a direct relationship with the prime minister's office.

TOKYO -- Although the prime minister's leadership has grown stronger, Japan's party politics are adrift. The Liberal Democratic Party's Policy Research Council, its policy coordination body where lawmakers from the "policy tribes" once were active, is a shell of its former self. The Komeito party, which joined the LDP to form the ruling coalition in 1999, has also been coordinating less with the LDP itself and focusing more on strengthening its ties with the prime minister's office.

"Can you set up an Article 79 agency and move ahead with it?" On April 1, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, also the LDP president, discussed one of his policy ideas with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai at the prime minister's office.

Article 79 of the LDP's party rules stipulates that the "president can establish special organs on a temporary basis." Suga's broader intention was to set up a new group to craft policy in place of the Policy Research Council, the reigning policymaking body until now.

The new group's focus would be the creation of a "children's agency" -- one of Suga's key goals is to create a strong government agency centralizing policies related to raising children. Currently the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which has jurisdiction over kindergartens, is fighting for control of policy with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which oversees day care facilities. It has been said that existing organs for implementing policy are decentralized and inefficient.

If the party discussed the issue in the Policy Research Council, that could lead to confrontation between the policy tribe members affiliated with the two ministries. Suga wants a new, agile organization that can make quick decisions. Nikai set up the headquarters for the project, led by himself, and reached conclusions in only two months.

Suga's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is also being handled by a group separate from the Policy Research Council. Nikai is the head of this group as well. The priorities of the prime minister's office are apparently bypassing the Policy Research Council, and only token intraparty discussions are happening via the connection between Suga and Nikai.

In the past, members of the policy tribes worked closely with industries and ministries to formulate policies. Former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, a member of the "road tribe," and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, a member of the "health tribe," were illustrative examples. Their intraparty factions, the Tanaka faction and the Takeshita faction, were called "general hospitals for tribe members," meaning they could respond to petitions from a variety of industries.

The big change came with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He appealed to the public as a reformer, saying he would "smash the old LDP" and "break down vested interests." He positioned the policy tribe members as the "resistance forces" opposing reforms. Voters overwhelmingly supported Koizumi in his assault on the resistance forces.

The turning point came in the 2005 general election. Privatization of the postal system, which Koizumi had championed, became the main issue. "During the Koizumi government, the factions and tribe members still thought of themselves as the ones holding power," said Harukata Takenaka, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "Some of them didn't realize the power of the prime minister and the party leader until the 2005 election."

In 2005, the Diet rejected a bill to privatize the postal service because of opposition from tribe members in the LDP, and Koizumi dissolved the lower house. In the election that followed, he refused to endorse the legislators who had opposed him and set up rival candidates in their districts. The resisters lost power when they were squeezed out as the party's official candidates.

Now the prime minister's office has become the preeminent political force. During his second stint as prime minister from December 2012, Shinzo Abe pushed through agricultural cooperative reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, blocking opposition from the agriculture tribe.

"The prime minister's office sets the policy agenda, and the Policy Research Council can only make minor changes," said Koji Nakakita, a professor at Hitotsubashi University. "There isn't the same level of resistance in the party that there used to be."

The same is true for Komeito, whose influence has ebbed as that of the prime minister's office grows. Komeito joined the LDP in a coalition government in October 1999. The ruling coalition has now been in power for nearly 20 years, except for three years and three months with a government under the Democratic Party of Japan, but is still seeking better policymaking processes to reflect its priorities.

On June 16, with the end of the regular Diet session, Policy Research Chair Yuzuru Takeuchi reported on his activities at a Komeito meeting, saying: "I made policy proposals in the Diet 31 times. To do so, I visited the prime minister's office and the cabinet ministers at least once a week. I met the prime minister seven times and the chief cabinet secretary 10 times."

Customarily, at the end of a legislative session lawmakers boast about the bills they helped pass, but Takeuchi emphasized his direct link to the prime minister's office, saying that "many Komeito proposals and positions were reflected" in the government's policies. Under the Suga government, Komeito has repeatedly made claims like these.

Japan did not have full-fledged coalitions until 1993, when an eight-party alliance under Morihiro Hosokawa removed the LDP from power. Since its formation in 1955, the LDP had until then largely dominated control of the government.

The LDP returned to power in 1994, teaming up with the then-Socialist Party of Japan, and in 1999 formed a coalition government with Komeito.

By teaming up with Komeito, the LDP hoped that Soka Gakkai, a Japanese religious group and Komeito's main institutional supporter, would attract more votes. Although the coalition garnered more votes in elections, there were more and more instances in which the LDP gave ground to Komeito on policy issues. Komeito was able to get its own priorities passed, including increased financial support for child care and more scholarships.

But as the LDP has grown weaker as the prime minister's office grows stronger, Komeito has also lost some of its bargaining power as a member of the ruling coalition. Komeito now has to negotiate directly with the prime minister's office to get what it wants, which is why party officials show off their direct connections to the prime minister's office.

Komeito has had two recent success stories. In 2015, despite opposition from the government and the LDP, the party successfully lobbied then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga to introduce categories of products that would be exempted from a consumption tax increase.

Then, in 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi negotiated directly with Prime Minister Abe to enact a cash handout of 100,000 yen ($910) to all residents of Japan, rather than a more targeted proposal to give 300,000 yen to qualified households that had lost income.

Both of these wins resulted from Komeito directly lobbying the prime minister's office. It is unusual for a prime minister and a political party of fewer than 60 members to negotiate directly, but the party hopes to establish this as a new policy process as the power of the prime minister's office grows.

Inside Japanese Politics is a column that focuses on the details and inner workings of Tokyo statecraft, policy and foreign relations.

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