Limited Influence over Politics [?] [says Nikkei's headline, but the article text contradicts this conclusion]
Nikkei Shimbun, October 16, 2016. (in Japanese) Provisional translation for scholarly discussion by Asia Policy Point
Nippon Kaigi [Japan Conference] proposes constitutional revision, visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and the introduction of an education system that better reflects the intrinsic values of Japan to conservative politicians inside the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party and other political parties. It hopes to attract like-minded lawmakers. It calls for support for conservative politicians and backs them. In this way it maintains its influence.
“This gathering became my first step toward a career in politics,” said Defense Minister Tomomi Inada when as LDP policy affairs chief she attended an annual national convention for the commemoration of war dead that the Japan Conference co-hosted with other groups last year at Yasukuni Shrine.
At this year’s event, Yoshitaka Shindo, the minister of internal affairs and communications in the second Abe cabinet, was present and called for support for the Japan Conference’s activities. Inada and Shindo are two of the core members of the group’s bipartisan parliamentary league, Nippon Kaigi Kokkai Giin Kondai Kai (the Japan Conference Diet members’ council).
Participation Is Merely “Adding Names to the Roster”
This parliamentarians’ group convenes a general meeting once a year. At the meeting held in March, over 30 Diet members attended and decided on policies on such matters as how to lobby for holding a national referendum on constitutional revision.
Speculation that the Japan Conference has a greater say in the government’s policymaking is sparked by the fact that many incumbent cabinet ministers belong to the group. Though the roster of the latest membership is not made public, Prime Minister Abe and 15 of 19 cabinet ministers belong, according to a source familiar with the matter.
But [asked about their membership,] the offices of several cabinet ministers replied they “have never attended gatherings of the league.” One office staffer said, “We are not aware that we belong to the group.” Though it has a membership of about 290 politicians, only a handful of them – mainly senior old-guard politicians – are active.
Then how much influence does the Japan Conference actually wield over elections? A person with the Japan Conference says that it acts as a “node” of various conservative forces and consolidates them into a single organism. This becomes the source of its influence.
The Japan Conference maintains its influence by closely working with the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership (Shindo Seiji Renmei, or Shinseiren), which comprises religious groups, such as the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho). With the help of the Shinto community, it has been rolling out a campaign to collect 10 million signatures to revise the Constitution.
But the Japan Conference has a membership of about 38,000 people. While Nichiiren (Federation of Japanese Doctors), the political arm of the Japan Medical Association, delivers about 200,000 votes to the LDP every election, the Japan Conference has an extremely small organizational base and is not in the position to field its own candidates. Its activities are mainly funded by membership fees and it cannot afford to make political donations to conservative members.
With the Abe government shifting to a realistic approach, how to maintain the national momentum of conservative movements will become one issue that the Japan Conference needs to tackle down the road.
The key is how the Japan Conference will keep facilitating discussions on constitutional revision. Within the LDP, there has been talk of extending Abe’s time in office as the party’s president. On the surface, it stands to gain if Abe, whom it backs, stays in power for a longer period of time, but matters are not as simple as that.
“Rather, we are concerned that there is a developing mood wherein constitutional revision needs not to be done quickly if there is an extension of the length of time the LDP president can remain in office,” said a policymaking committee member in the Japan Conference. There are fears the momentum of its national campaign for constitutional revision may slow.
Another worrisome issue is that its activities are not attracting wide support from the public. Birei Kin, a conservative critic and supporter of the Japan Conference, points out that “the same people always participate in its events” and deplores that its campaigns do not reach many.
The Abduction Issue Potentially Starting a New Fire
Now, the emperor, who is the greatest centripetal force of the Nippon Kaigi, also poses a new challenge for the organization. After the Emperor Hinted that he would like to step down while alive, the nervousness that the current emperor system (in which the Emperor plays a symbolic role) might change fundamentally is simmering inside the Nippon Kaigi. Although the organization on the surface to follow the direction that “we must realize it if that is the Emperor’s will,” inside oppositions and push backs are strong. For the Nippon Kaigi, the issue might start a new fire.
In recent years, new members recruited through the Internet, especially among the young, are increasing. That said, the trend of non-partisan groups’ conservatism is the real source of the growing attention paid to the Nippon Kaigi. If in the future the non-partisan groups’ preferences change, the possibility of the Nippon Kaigi losing influence certainly exists.
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