“But it’s obvious that I’m not a militarist,” replied Izumi Kenta, the leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), the largest opposition party in Japan, after facing criticisms from supporters and progressive pundits for his visit to Nogi Shrine. The shrine, which Izumi visited and posted about on his social media accounts, was initially established to commemorate General Nogi Maresuke of Imperial Japan, a commander during the Russo-Japanese war celebrated as a war hero.
Nogi Shrine nowadays is a popular destination for hatsumode – a common ritual where Japanese people go to the shrine to wish for good fortunes – and most visitors have little knowledge of its relationship to Japan’s militaristic past. However, Izumi still received criticism from progressives that his visit was legitimizing and even promoting militarism.
In response, Izumi noted that although he acknowledged the shrine’s complicated legacy, he had no intention of appearing as a militarist. He visited the shrine to pray for the wellbeing of his country and his family.
Although these online arguments may seem trivial, the incident is a reminder of the ongoing tug-of-war within the CDP, which has been intensifying since Izumi became party leader. After the CDP lost yet again to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the 2021 general elections, the party faced a reckoning. That forced the CDP to reconsider its left-wing turn under Izumi’s predecessor, Edano Yukio.
Edano was the founder of CDP, the successor party of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party of Japan that governed the country from 2009 to 2012. Under his tenure, the CDP adopted socially progressive agendas into its platform. He even went to the extent of agreeing with the Communist Party of Japan (CPJ) to “limited extra-cabinet cooperation,” leaving the impression that the CDP, if brought to power, would form a de facto coalition government with the CPJ – a party especially perceived as out of step from the general public on matters of national security.
LDP members exploited the CDP’s ties with the Communists extensively. During the electoral campaign, LDP parliamentarian (and former minister of defense) Kono Taro claimed that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the security treaty with the United States – both important pillars of Japan’s defense policy – would be abolished if the CDP achieved victory, since the CPJ has been alluding to that eventuality in their platform.
Sensing that the electoral loss in 2021 was a rebuke of the direction the party had taken under Edano’s four years as party leader, the CDP anointed Izumi, from the conservative wing of the erstwhile DPJ. In 2007, Izumi had been one of the signatories – along with the ultra-conservatives in Japan – of a notorious paid advertisement in the Washington Post that condemned a resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on the “comfort women” issue. In the statement, they argued that the House resolution was historically inaccurate and claimed to present “the facts” – by denying that the Japanese military forced Korean women to become sex slaves.
Izumi’s ascendance to party leader thus signaled a reversal of the CDP’s previous stance on issues such as the constitutional debate, nuclear power, and defense policy – all issues that work as a litmus test for political affiliation in Japan. And indeed there have been signs of a rightward shift under Izumi.
One of the first steps that Izumi undertook as leader was to scrap the accord that his predecessor signed with the Communist Party of Japan. Also, he amended ties with Nippon Ishin no Kai – a party that a CDP member once criticized as more right-leaning than the LDP – and has formed a united front with them against the government, capitalizing on the LDP’s continuing scandal regarding the Unification Church.
The two parties have agreed to extend cooperation into this year’s Normal Diet session, where they are expected to oppose the government’s plan to pay for increased defense spending through tax hikes. Izumi has recently sent overtures to Nippon Ishin by mentioning the party’s slogan, “reform that requires sacrifice.” This has ruffled some feathers with his own party’s progressive base, which disapproves of Nippon Ishin’s neoliberal approach.
Even though efforts have been made on Izumi’s behalf to transform the CDP into a party that can claim the mantle of a credible alternative to the LDP, which has been the governing party of Japan for the last decade, the progressive wing of his party has been stalling the process of moderation. When the government declared that they were planning to acquire “counterstrike capabilities,” there were initial reports suggesting that the CDP would endorse the decision. However, they ultimately decided to take the stance of opposing the government’s proposal – succumbing to the progressive camp’s criticism that the possession of such capabilities will lead to preemptive attacks – while acknowledging the necessity of long-range missiles to defend Japanese territory.
The ultimate position that the CDP adopted on the issue of counterstrike capabilities is one example of the potential perils that lie ahead for the party. The fact that the CDP did not oppose the change entirely – as the left-leaning parties had done – shows that the moderating forces within the party have gained ground under Izumi. However, the failure to send clear-cut messages will not help the public understand the CDP’s agenda, and the ambiguous stance could open up the CDP to the criticism that they are indecisive when making difficult decisions in governing.
Also, Izumi’s failure to appease the progressive elements of his party could invoke criticism from the LDP (and possibly Nippon Ishin, which has ambitions to replace the CDP as the largest opposition party) that he is being taken hostage by the left, therefore discrediting his party’s competence as a relevant force in Japanese politics.
Whether Izumi can reform the party in his own image, and replay the DPJ’s success in ousting the LDP from power seems a long way off. However, under Izumi’s leadership, there are signs of moderation and attempts to reconfigure the party in a way that garners support from a wide range of the public. This is a welcome sign for those who have been disenchanted by the weakness of the opposition parties in general.