Japan ruling party’s once-prominent faction in crisis after losing 10 members

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Then Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai speaks at the party’s election strategy meeting alongside then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at LDP headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 14.

October was a cruel month for Liberal Democratic Party bigwig Toshihiro Nikai.

The former LDP secretary general not only had to give up that post, but the faction he leads has lost 10 of its 47 members following the House of Representatives election on Oct. 31.

At the time of the dissolution of the lower house, the Nikai faction was the party’s fourth largest, but some of its candidates were unsuccessful in the election, along with the retirements of Bunmei Ibuki, a former lower house speaker who served as the faction’s top adviser, and Takeo Kawamura, a former chief cabinet secretary who was the faction’s acting chairman.

In a bit of good news for the faction, Goshi Hosono was accepted as a member of the LDP on Friday. Hosono, a former environment minister in the administration led by the then Democratic Party of Japan, became a special member of the Nikai faction in January 2019, with the aim of joining the LDP. In the Oct. 31 general election, Hosono ran as an independent and defeated an LDP candidate that belonged to the faction of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“At long last, he has been recognized,” said an executive of the Nikai faction.

The situation surrounding the faction remains difficult, however.

Nikai had been LDP secretary general for more than five years until October, when newly elected LDP President Kishida removed him, leaving Nikai without a post in the party or the administration.

Then, among the seven factions in the party, the Nikai faction suffered the largest loss in the aftermath of the election.

“I always say how tough elections are, but it turned out it wasn’t an exaggeration,” Nikai said at a faction meeting on Thursday.

Some first-time winners and former lawmakers who were voted into the lower house this time will join the faction, likely boosting it to the 40-member level again. With the retirements of the two heavyweights, Ibuki and Kawamura, restoring the faction will be an urgent task, however.

Takayuki Kobayashi, 46, minister in charge of economic security, and Masanobu Ogura, 40, director of the LDP’s Youth Division, are among some of the emerging junior and mid-ranking members who will be responsible for leading the faction’s next generation.

Connections key

The key to restoring the faction seems to lie in Nikai’s connections.

Nikai shares a tacit understanding with former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, a factionless lawmaker who has maintained a certain distance from Kishida.

“We should work with the group supporting Suga to restore our faction,” said a mid-ranking member of the Nikai faction.

Nikai also has a good relationship with another factionless lawmaker, Seiko Noda, state minister in charge of measures for declining birthrate. When Nikai was secretary general, Noda served as executive acting secretary general.

When Noda sought the LDP presidency in September, eight members of the Nikai faction endorsed her. She even came to Nikai’s home turf of Wakayama Constituency No. 3 during the lower house election campaign to show her support for him.

Within the Nikai faction, some have said that it is better for the faction to have many options and more possibilities at hand to prepare for the post-Kishida era.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has described Nikai as having “the greatest political skills.”

Abe came from the LDP’s largest faction, which is led by Hiroyuki Hosoda.

Another veteran member of the Hosoda faction added, “It’s hard to imagine the Nikai faction sinking for good.”