Japan Keeps Politics in the Family

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan is pressuring the ruling coalition to call for an early election, hoping to capitalize on the sagging public support for the Liberal Democratic Party-led government. But an election in Japan is unlikely to usher in the kind of generational change that we have seen in the United States with the election of Barack Obama.

That is because in Japan, politics is about family. Unless you have a family member who is a politician, the path to high political office is extremely hard and very exclusive. Despite the fact that the Democrats are seeking to pass legislation to ban family members from taking over from their seniors, it is unlikely to be ratified. This reality was accentuated last month when Taro Aso became prime minister. Aso and 12 of his 18 cabinet ministers are seshu giin or hereditary politicians who followed family members into politics. In fact, the last four Japanese prime ministers were seshu giin and the three most recent leaders - Taro Aso, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe - were sons, or grandsons of past prime ministers.

Japanese politics is open only to a limited elite and it is not surprising that the dynamism of Japan’s democracy is in crisis, with many people are now questioning the meaning of the term. How can we Japanese laugh at North Korea’s hereditary leadership when our own open and democratic system has resulted in a similar arrangement?

After the Second World War, many of Japan’s successful politicians were former bureaucrats. The typical course for several prime ministers in the postwar era was to graduate from the University of Tokyo, gain experience in top ministry positions and then run for a seat in the Lower House of the Diet (Parliament) as a candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – the long dominant political party in Japan.

But over the years, the political machinery that is the “three musts” - jiban (supporter groups), kanban (name recognition) and kaban (campaign finances) - have severely restricted the flow of fresh blood and new ideas into the Japanese political arena. Moreover, civil servants and company employees wishing to stand for political office must resign and leave their jobs. As a result many talented individuals think twice about giving up their jobs and family responsibility and most decide to give up their political dreams instead.

Unlike Mr. Obama’s political beginnings as a community organizer in the rough neighborhoods of Chicago, the starting line for hereditary politicians in Japan is very different. In fact, they don’t need talent or passion. All they have to do is just wait until their father or a family member announces his retirement from politics and go on to succeed with the three musts provided by the family. Although hereditary politicians are certainly not unique to Japan, the figures are astonishing. In the 2005 Lower House election, over 80 percent of those elected were hereditary politicians. In 2007, about 30 percent of the elected Lower House members regardless of the party were seshu.

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The domination of the seshu is clearer if you focus on the prime ministership. Since the beginning of 1992, Japan had 11 prime ministers and only two of them, Tomiichi Murayama and Kiichi Miyazawa, did not come from a political family. It is well known that many Japanese traditionally admire “bloodlines” or “family trees” because of their tradition of worship of the Emperor’s family, which can be traced back more than 2,600 years. Hereditary politicians often say: “I’ve observed the power games in politics closely since my childhood”.

But watching and doing are quite different things. After both Abe and Fukuda, grandson and son of the earlier prime ministers, suddenly stepped down less than a year after they came to office, people in Japan began to seriously question the capability of the second and third generation of political families to lead the nation. In the arts or entertainment, one’s DNA sometimes matters. But the Japanese people increasingly realize that politics should be different from kabuki.

In striking contrast, large, successful and internationally known Japanese businesses have stayed away from hereditary leadership. The founder of Honda, who regretted giving his company is family name, never allowed Honda to employ either his son or other second generation members. Sony has an American chief executive officer.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the leading opposition party, plans to submit a bill to regulate hereditary members in the Diet and to ban the child or spouse of a lawmaker from taking over his or her fundraising organization. The bill also limits the candidacies of family members of past or current Diet members seeking to run in the same electoral districts. But the electoral reform bill is fraught with risk for the DPJ and the party might just as well end up shooting itself in the foot. The party’s president, Ichiro Ozawa, took over his electoral base from his family and some 10 percent of DPJ Diet members are descendants of former politicians. However, it also knows that public frustration is high and to win in the next election, it must address this issue.

But earlier reformers in Japan have found that change can be difficult. During his campaign for LDP president in 2001, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (often called a “maverick” reformer) once shouted to his audience: “I will demolish the old LDP!" The slogan caught the hearts of many Japanese. That was six years ago and in September this year, Koizumi announced his intention to retire from politics. He then named his second son as his successor. If Shinjiro Koizumi, age 27, is elected in the next general election, he will be the fourth generation of the Koizumi family to enter their political dynasty.

In an Asahi Shimbun poll conducted right after the November 5th U.S. election, nearly 80 percent said they viewed Mr. Obama’s election as a "good thing". In Japan’s next election, could be the turn of Japanese voters to bring “change” to Japanese politics.

Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow of the Asia Society based in Washington, DC. He was the Beijing correspondent for the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, from April 2005 to August 2008.