Japan’s LDP puts faith in religious partner

Twice a day, seven days a week, Mie Yamada sits before an altar in her Tokyo home and reads from the Lotus Sutra, a Buddhist text.

In a country that has largely lost religion, it is a ritual that marks the 31-year-old Ms Yamada as a follower of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organisation that is poised to play a critical part in Japan’s Lower House elections on Sunday.

Soka Gakkai members are all supporters of the New Komeito, a political party formed by the religious group, and their votes could help the Liberal Democratic party stay in power.

The LDP and the New Komeito, partners in Japan’s ruling coalition, have sealed a pact to co-operate in Sunday’s national elections by supporting the same candidate in each constituency.

After four years as partners, the two parties have learned to put aside their differences and the considerable antagonism of a few years ago.

The partnership is particularly useful to the LDP in urban areas where its traditional support mechanism is no longer effective.

“The LDP cannot win in urban areas, which are dominated by floating voters,” says Takao Toshikawa, a political analyst.

Last month’s by-election for an Upper House seat held in Saitama prefecture, just north-west of Tokyo, was a case in point. “It is common knowledge” in Japanese political circles, says Mr Toshikawa, that the Soka Gakkai provided about 50,000 votes to the LDP candidate.

The Saitama by-election, which the LDP candidate won with a margin of just 15,000 votes, proved that organised support for the LDP, which used to be provided by industrial organisations, no longer exists in urban areas, Mr Toshikawa says. That is why the LDP has been wooing Soka Gakkai members, who can generally be relied on to follow the recommendations of their party.

With 8m households in Japan counted as Soka Gakkai members, providing an estimated 20,000 votes or more per constituency, it is an organised electoral machine the LDP finds well worth having on its side.

So it is not surprising that LDP members have been willing to put aside their former assertions that the New Komeito represented a breach of the Japanese constitution, which stipulates the separation of religion and politics.

They have seemed unconcerned about media claims of sexual harassment and even rape against Daisaku Ikeda, the spiritual leader of Soka Gakkai.

The New Komeito, for its part, appears happy to co-operate with the LDP as long as it can remain in the coalition. “With the [opposition] DPJ calling for a two-party system, the focus of attention in this election is on the two big parties – the LDP and the DPJ,” says Tatsujiro Hashimoto, adviser to the New Komeito’s Tokyo headquarters. In this environment, “we were concerned that the New Komeito might not stand out as a party”, he explains.

In one central Tokyo constituency, for example, the New Komeito is supporting Kaoru Yosano, a member of the LDP elite who lost his seat in the last election.

The danger is that this marriage of convenience, while providing short-term gain, could in the long run cost the party some of its traditional supporters. As a member of the coalition, the New Komeito, which supports clean government, social welfare and global peace, has had to compromise some of its principles.

Mr Hashimoto admits there have been many complaints from Soka Gakkai members, for example, about the coalition’s decision to send Japanese troops to Iraq.

The LDP, for its part, could find that its pact with the New Komeito antagonises floating voters in urban areas who tend to be critical of partnerships based on political convenience.

If these voters turn out in large numbers on Sunday, even with the Soka Gakkai’s support, political forecasters predict Mr Yosano will struggle to compete with his popular DPJ opponent.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Financial Times, UK
Nov. 6, 2003
Michiyo Nakamoto

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday November 7, 2003.
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