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Can Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Escape Factional Politics? 

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Can Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Escape Factional Politics? 

As long as the factions’ influence on personnel affairs continues, factionalism will not disappear within the LDP.

Can Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Escape Factional Politics? 
Credit: Depositphotos

Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is facing its worst corruption scandal in over three decades. Investigators are looking into claims that ministers and legislators received kickbacks in exchange for campaign contributions generated at campaign rally events. Subsequently, LDP politicians funneled millions of dollars from fundraising proceeds into undisclosed slush funds, failing to report any of it as mandated by law. 

The scandal forced Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to fire four Cabinet members, all of whom hailed from the LDP faction associated with late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The scandal led to widespread criticism of not only the Kishida administration but also the institutions of the LDP, especially factionalism. 

On the one hand, Japan is a liberal democracy with guaranteed civil rights and liberties for its citizens. On the other hand, Japan is a one-party state. Following the merger between the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party to create the LDP in 1955, the LDP enjoyed 40 years of political monopoly. As a result, some Japan observers describe the LDP as “neither liberal nor democratic nor a party.” Even after the various political reform attempts during the mid-1990s, the LDP’s political power seems unchallenged aside from three brief years (2009-2012) when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) gained power. Far from posing a serious challenge to the LDP, the opposition’s brief stint in power led to the discredit and collapse of the DPJ altogether. 

The History of LDP Factions

Factional politics has been a crucial pillar of the LDP’s dominance since the party’s formation. The merger of the two largest conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, in 1955 was a marriage of desperation. Facing the emergence of a unified leftist party eager to take the majority in the parliament, conservative politicians in Japan realized that only a Liberal-Democratic merger could prevent a leftist takeover. 

Originally, the emergence of factions represented the old party line cleavage between former conservative rivals. However, division along old party lines soon disappeared, as LDP factions became central to the contention over the party’s top leadership position – which, given the LDP’s dominance, is all but equivalent to the prime minister post. 

The election of the party president requires only votes from LDP Diet members, making vote recruitment among LDP legislators vital for a successful bid. Aspiring leaders within the LDP who aimed for the party presidency needed the support of rank-and-file parliamentary members for the leadership election. Factions have become essential to winning and retaining this support. Contenders provide factional election funds or support their members in local elections in return for faction members’ support for their bid for the party presidency. 

Furthermore, factions are deeply involved in personnel matters. Faction leaders negotiate to divide up important party and Cabinet roles among members of different factions. Even the election of the LDP president – who s becomes the prime minister – results from factional bargaining and rotation.    

Factional politics reached a new height under former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (in office 1972-1974), who pioneered the “general hospital” patron-client system. Under this system, Tanaka doled out economically inefficient projects or policies to reward Diet members in exchange for their factional loyalty. Tanaka, who had a robust background in the construction industry – before starting his political career, he was the boss of a construction company – supported his faction members through public works like airports, bullet trains, and highways. Faction members received subsidies and conducted public construction projects in their electoral districts, awarding contracts to local supporters, creating job opportunities, and gathering votes in elections. 

Additionally, faction heavyweights, from Tanaka himself to his important confidants, traveled to various electoral districts to support faction members in their election campaigns. In addition to simply deploying famous politicians, Tanaka’s factions sent politicians who could complement candidates’ weaknesses and make pork-barrel promises more credible. For example, if a candidate was strong in agriculture but weak in construction-related policies, Tanaka would send a high-ranking official with influence in the former construction ministry. Conversely, if a candidate with a construction background was weak in agricultural policies, Tanaka would send a high-ranking official with influence in the agriculture ministry. 

Commanding this “general hospital,” Tanaka mobilized enough support to seize LDP leadership after Prime Minister Sato Eisaku’s abrupt retirement and became the new prime minister in 1972. Even after the Tanaka administration crashed down following the Lockheed Scandal, in which Tanaka received bribes from American airplane manufacturer Lockheed via a fixer in exchange for lucrative contracts, the former prime minister could command enough support from Diet members to maintain his political influence. He built the largest political faction in LDP history, known as the Tanaka Army (Tanaka Gundan), and was known as the “shadow shogun” of Japanese politics between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s.

Current Reform Efforts

Due to the political fundraising scandal, which centered on the activities of factions, the LDP is moving toward factional dissolution. Four out of the six major factions are planning to dissolve. However, there are significant challenges involved in dissolving factions. 

One problem is the redistribution of remaining factional assets; whether the funds are taxable remains a point of contention. In addition, there is no rule for disclosing policy activity funds. Therefore, top LDP officials refuse public disclosure or supervision. Finally, the Aso and Motegi factions, which the recent scandal has not impacted, have decided not to dissolve. During a speech at Fukuoka on January 27, Aso Taro, currently the LDP’s vice president, said that his faction would continue to exist as a “policy group.” Similarly, LDP Secretary General Motegi Toshimitsu stated that his faction “would move toward a new policy group,” indicating his faction’s plan to stay rather than dissolve. 

The current crisis is not the first time the LDP has advocated for faction dissolutions. The Recruit Scandal of 1988 shocked the Japanese public. It brought down the Takeshita Noboru administration after media reports surfaced that Takeshita and his faction members were involved in insider trading of Recruit stocks before the company’s Initial Public Offering. In response to the scandal, LDP’s 1989 Political Reform Guidelines declared the determination to “dissolve factions.” However, this guideline did not stop factions or organizational corruption. 

The Sagawa Kyubin Scandal in 1992 brought down another LDP heavyweight, Kanemaru Shin, and even the LDP regime altogether in 1993. The rise of an anti-LDP coalition administration headed by Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro sparked popular calls for structural political reform. The 1994 Four Laws of Political Reform replaced the single non-transferable vote system of multi-member districts (MMD) with a mixed electoral system of plurality-voting single-member districts (SMD) and a party list system with proportional representation in regional voting districts.

Following the reform, many observers of Japanese politics believed that the new electoral system would decrease the importance of factional politics and lead to its demise. In the previous system, LDP factions could each nominate a candidate in one MMD. In the new system, the LDP can only nominate one candidate per SMD, taking away factions’ power to recruit new members. In addition, since the Koizumi administration, the factional influence in Cabinet posts has also decreased. However, factions still possess a decisive voice in appointing party roles, especially Policy Affairs Research Committee membership. Therefore, factions survive as LDP Diet members continue joining factions to advance their careers.

As long as the factions’ influence on personnel affairs continues, factionalism will not disappear within the LDP. Even though formal factions may disappear, LDP members will likely start groups under other names, such as “study groups,” and continue factional activities. 

For example, in 1985 Takeshita Noboru, Kanemaru Shin, and Ozawa Ichiro, former confidants of Tanaka Kakuei, started a study group called “Souseikai (創政会)” to wrestle the power of LDP control away from their former mentor. The study group was a de facto faction within the Tanaka faction, allowing them to quietly organize anti-Tanaka forces within Tanaka’s own faction. Two years later, Takeshita, Kanemaru, and Ozawa split with Tanaka and officially started a new faction with their followers. The new faction inherited almost all members from Tanaka’s old faction. The split, along with Tanaka’s deteriorating health, became the nail in the coffin of Tanaka’s political career. Therefore, it is very possible for the Diet members from the four dissolved factions to form new groups to compete with members from the Motegi and Aso factions.

No matter how the current political drama unfolds, the prolonged domestic political chaos will hamper Japan’s ability to address critical security challenges. During Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki’s term (1989-1991), the LDP could not decisively address diplomatic and security challenges amid a series of high-profile scandals in the LDP, including the Recruit Scandal and Prime Minister Uno’s sex scandal. In addition, the Kaifu administration, attempting to regain public support following scandals, could not contradict the public opposition and unilaterally deploy the Self-Defense Forces overseas during the 1990 Gulf War. 

Japan paid dearly for the political dysfunction. The Japanese government faced severe criticism from the United States and the allied nations for its slow response to the Middle Eastern crisis. Despite funding most of the war effort, Japan failed to send troops, and its response was considered “too little, too late.” In Kuwait’s open letter of appreciation in the New York Times after the war, Japan was not mentioned. It was such a blow to Japan’s image as the second superpower behind the United States that many considered the Gulf War as an unofficial “defeat” for Japan. 

Currently, Japan is facing various security challenges, including threats from North Korea, the war in Ukraine, and the crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Failure to respond rapidly to diplomatic and security challenges due to domestic political chaos could be dangerous for Japan.