For many decades since the 1955 merger of the two conservative parties that created it, the liberal Democratic Party faced no serious opposition within the Diet. Thus, for the media, it was the LDP habatsu, i.e. factions, that served as the main building blocs of national politics. The habatsu leaders were as medieval warlords, making and breaking truces and alliances, in a ceaseless competition with each other for money, power, and, of course, the ultimate prize, the prime minister's chair. Although some habatsu were seen to be dominated by ex-bureaucrat leadership ad others not, and some tended to have more dovish members than others, the differences were minimal, and membership and inter-habatsu alliances and enmity were dominated by personal relationships, chance, and simple greed.
However, for reasons over which there is dispute (there is the prevalent argument that the 1993 switch from the multimember, single-entry electoral district system to the single-member-district-cum-proportional-representation system was the main cause, while others argue that change in voter behavior itself was the root cause), elections have taken on a stronger policy orientation, and parties have increasingly come to be identified with their leaders.
For the LDP, this came to a head in 2001, when Mori-ha member Junichiro Koizumi beat out the overwhelmingly favored Ryutaro Hashimoto, head of his own powerful habatsu, on the basis of the LDP rank-and-file popular vote, which the delegates to the main vote felt unable to ignore. Prime Minister Koizumi would go on to demonstrate time and time again during his regime that he could bypass the wishes of the habatsu chieftains and appeal directly to the people. In fact, Mr. Koizumi's most lasting legacy may turn out to be not his work-in-progress structural reforms, but the political changes by which he adopted a personalized leadership based on national goals to replace habatsu power politics as the key to national and hence party dominance. Tellingly, of the three main candidates (four if you include the ultimately undeclared dove-favorite Yasuo Fukuda) to succeed Mr. Koizumi, only Mr. Tanigaki was a habatsu leader, and he had so few habatsu members that he was obliged to reach out to other factions to collect the twenty Diet member signatures required to second his candidacy.
Koizumi favorite and the ultimate winner, Prime Minister Abe, showed a little less overt disdain for the habatsu than Mr. Koizumi. Still, his cabinet appointments, with a few exceptions, tended to straightforwardly reward the individuals who helped bring their colleagues on board, more often than not on lines that crossed habatsu lines. In particular, the key political appointees to the Cabinet Office paid no respect whatsoever to habatsu lines, and indicated his desire to seek a presidential model of government.
However, the spirit of the habatsu is alive and well in two places: the Upper House LDP, and the eight-year junior coalition partner Komeito. Needles to say, those were the exceptions to Mr. Abe's relatively faction-free cabinet appointments. And they will become serious problems for Mr. Abe as he tries to realize his political agenda. This is why:
Komeito is the political arm of the Sokagakkai, the laic organization of an offshoot Nichiren-Buddhism sect that boasts an 8.21-million-household membership (2003). As such, it can deliver a given number of votes for itself and its coalition partner, the LDP. The LDP cannot dispense with the Komeito, not only during the election for the Sokagakkai votes, but also for the Upper House, where it needs the Komeito Councilors for a simple majority. In a nation where party discipline is strong and Diet members rarely cross party lines (LDP members in particular will have been chastened after last year's Lower House general election ignited by the Postal Office reform vote), the LDP is unable to pass laws without the Komeito's help.
Typical members of the Sokagakkai are apolitical shopkeepers and other small businessmen and their employees. They are social conservatives, non-socialists but desirous of social justice. They are institutional doves, a clear legacy of the persecution they suffered domestically along side other religions and sects during the Showa War. These party and constituency profiles fit in very nicely with the urban, dovish wing of the LDP. So it is no wonder that the Komeito has fit in so seamlessly within the coalition. And it's religious cohesion allows it to maintain indefinitely an distinct virtual-habatsu identity within the coalition.
This did not cause serious problems during the Koizumi administration. As hated by the Chinese leadership and President Roh Moo-hyun as he was, Mr. Koizumi actually belonged to the bad War, bad Class A War Criminal side of Yasukuni-goers. Thus, he had an underlying affinity with the Komeito-Sokagakkai, which identified itself as yet one victim of the Japanese Establishment during the Showa War.
This is in sharp contrast to the Abe administration. Mr. Abe identifies himself with the post-Restoration modern Japanese Establishment, putting him at stark odds with the ruling party doves. The presidential-styled governance that Mr. Abe is pursuing is also troubling to Komeito, since it undermines the power of the one .cabinet minister that it is entitled to, a quota strongly reminiscent of the habatsu of old. (The Upper House LDP also receives a quota of two ministers, whose choices were ultimately conceded in line with custom to the head of the LDP Upper House members.) Akihiro Ota, the new Komeito head was acutely aware of this, and public went on record in seeking a seat for his party in the Cabinet Office inner circle.
Mr. Ota's efforts have so far been in vain. No Komeito member has been allowed to penetrate Mr. Abe's inner circle. This comes as no surprise when nobody in the LDP proper has been able to do so either. Nevertheless, the Komeito was alarmed when it was shut out of Mr. Abe's Education Regeneration Council, and ultimately wound up with the joint-coalition, political-level, Education Regeneration Consideration Commission. Komeito got a chance to flex its muscle when the high school curriculum scandal broke. The LDP and the Education Ministry brokered a deal under which the students lacking the required credits would be required to take a maximum of 70 classes (50 minutes each), beyond which reports and means would suffice. Komeito, however, decided to step in and nix the deal, which led to a compromise that reduced minimum requirements to 50 classes.
Small change, you say? After all, you don't expect the high school students to forego their naps during those classes, or that the schools would not go out of their way to ensure that such students will not fail to pass (and graduate). Sure, but think of the muscles Komeito is going to flex when education reform gets into high gear. And the problems there could pale in comparison to the situation when the substance of constitutional amendment becomes the center of political attention? Then there's tax reform. The last time they raised the consumption tax, Komeito demanded, and got, a 20,000-yen payoff to every 15-and-under and indigent 65-and-over. And will Komeito sit idle as friends of Abe concoct the bill to balance the national pension and healthcare systems comes around.
Although the Komeito is for all practical purposes an LDP habatsu, it has a religious and temperamental cohesion that traditional habatsu never enjoyed in its heydays. Unlike the real habatsu, it can secede en masse. Under current political alignments, Mr. Abe needs the Komeito,, yet he may not be willing or able to pay the price for their consent. His only alternative at that point may be to reach beyond the coalition and attempt to join hands with sympathetic members of the opposition, thus precipitating yet another realignment of the Japanese body politic.