By Eric Johnson
The Japanese Trade Union Confederation — better known as Rengo — has a long history of backing opposition parties. So in April, as the country began to prepare for the summer Upper House election, it came as a shock to many observers when the head of Rengo, Tomoko Yoshino, attended a meeting with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to discuss labor issues.
The meeting added fuel to a fire that started in January, when Rengo leaders said the organization would not specify which political party or parties it would back in the election, even though two of the main opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People, are heavily reliant on votes from Rengo’s membership. Rengo has also said it will not back any candidates affiliated with the Japanese Communist Party.
Yoshino played down her meeting with senior LDP officials, brushing aside concern that Rengo would switch its support to the ruling party. But Taro Aso, the LDP’s vice president, welcomed Yoshino’s efforts to meet with the ruling party on April 18. About a month before that, she attended a dinner with Aso, prompting him to observe that the relationship between the LDP and Rengo had evolved to the point where the two of them could drink sake together.
Then, on April 29, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno attended a Rengo-sponsored May Day rally in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on behalf of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
A closer relationship between Yoshino and the LDP would be deeply concerning for CDP and DPP leaders, who are in the process of finalizing their candidates for the Upper House election. Both parties receive significant electoral support from Rengo’s 7 million-member trade confederation, comprised of 48 different industrial workers’ unions.
“We aren’t leaning toward the LDP at all,” Yoshino said during an April news conference. “We’re just exchanging opinions with major political parties, excluding the Communist Party, regarding requests for policies. As such, we would like to be actively involved with the LDP if it helps get our policies realized.”
But as experts note, despite being a single confederation today, Rengo is mainly made up of two former labor federations, where membership and political preferences often differed, frequently resulting in friction when deciding on a single opposition candidate.
“Rengo’s origin lies in the 1998 merger between the former Japanese Confederation of Labor (known as JCL or Domei), and the former General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (known as GCL or Sohyo). The JCL was composed mainly of labor unions affiliated with large corporations in the automobile and electronic industries,” says veteran journalist Hiroshi Samejima, publisher of the Samejima Times political newsletter.
The JCL had different views, especially on Japan’s security, compared to the GCL, which was comprised of teachers and local government officials unions. This meant the two unions invariably supported different parties at election time.
The JCL supported the former Democratic Socialist Party, an anti-communist opposition party that was dissolved in 1994 after it merged with another opposition party. The GCL supported the former Japan Socialist Party, whose views on security matched those of GCL members. In general, DSP recognized the legitimacy of the U.S.-Japan military alliance while the JSP did not.
After the 1989 merger that created Rengo, there was enough unity within the organization to help elect a non-LDP coalition government that governed in 1993 and 1994, which included members of the Democratic Socialist Party and the Japan Socialist Party. The LDP would later return to power, and so Rengo went to work again in support of the opposition.
“Rengo always supported the top opposition party, and pushed for a change in government. This led to the birth of the Democratic Party of Japan government in 2009. During the DPJ administration (2009-12), there were still differences within Rengo between former JCL and GCL members on security and other issues, but they were united under the goal of ending LDP rule,” Samejima says.
Those differences, however, would remain. When the DPJ fell, there would be years of opposition party realignment before two Rengo-friendly parties came into being: the Constitutional Democratic Party 2017 and the Democratic Party for the People in 2018. The CDP would merge with most of the DPP members in 2020, but neither party has been able to win big at election time.
Journalist Tetsuo Suzuki, who comments on Japan’s politics for print and broadcast media, says that there has always been conflict between the old JCL and GCL lines within Rengo, which weakens the confederation’s ability to get both factions to cooperate at election time.
“When the opposition parties are strong and have a lot of support, Rengo’s two sides are united. When the opposition parties are weak, the old internal conflicts between former members of the labor reformist GCL and the pro-corporate, management-oriented JCL come to the surface,” Suzuki says.
Yoshino began a two-year term as Rengo chair in October 2021. She was previously with the Japanese Association of Metal, Machinery and Manufacturing Workers (JAM), which was a JCL-affiliated union, where she had served as vice-chair.
JAM is Rengo’s fifth largest union, with about 347,000 members. The largest Rengo-affiliated union, UA Zensen, has about 1.85 million members from the manufacturing, distribution, and service industries. It is followed in size by the Japan Autoworkers’ Unions (around 797,000 members), the All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union (751,600 members) and the Japan Electrical Electronic and Information Union (about 561,000 members).
Yoshino’s background, Suzuki says, impacts her views on politics, especially toward the Japanese Communist Party. She has made no secret of the fact that she does not like the JCP and has attacked them publicly.
In a December interview with the Sankei Shimbun, she drew the ire of the JCP when she said that “Communism is a top-down system in which decisions are made by the leadership and then passed down to the lower levels of society. Our democracy is the opposite of communism’s way of thinking.”
Samejima adds that Rengo’s former JCL member unions have affiliations with large corporations, especially in the automobile and electronics industries. Therefore they are basically close to the business world, which makes the JCP an unacceptable party to support.
“In recent years, the power of former JCL member unions has been growing within Rengo, and its anti-Communist stance has also been growing in tandem with their power,” he says. According to Samejima, Rengo is likely to continue moving closer to the LDP — especially after the recent failure of a CDP-led opposition coalition agreement with the JCP during the Oct. 31 Lower House election.
However, Yoshino’s meetings with the LDP may be a step too far for some in Rengo, and Suzuki warns that her attempts to cooperate with the party could backfire.
“The LDP promotes policies favored by the management of large corporations and global firms. If Rengo works with the LDP, they might make some progress on policies for workers, but in the end, it probably won’t be enough to actually achieve them. Within Rengo, there are now voices of opposition to Yoshino’s approach to the LDP, and even some who say she should step down,” he says.