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Where Japan's next leaders grow

Three candidates to head Japan's Democratic Party are graduates of the Matsushita Institute.

By Takashi OkaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2002


In 1986, Shigefumi Mitsuzawa, then a student at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management here, traveled to Washington. After meeting with several members of Congress, he landed an internship on the staff of Beverly Byron, a congresswoman from Maryland. A year later, he returned to Tokyo determined to introduce the openness and informality he found in US politics to his own country.

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Today, Mitsuzawa is a member of Japan's House of Representatives and a candidate to head the Democrat Party, Japan's largest opposition party. He is also one 21 Diet members who are graduates of the Matsushita Institute.

In a country where legacies go a long way at the polls, most Matsushita alumni are outsiders to the political process. They represent a new breed of reformers in Japanese politics and, some say, a viable threat to the tired old political establishment.

"Matsushita graduates don't have the usual background of Japanese politicians in that they are not the children of Diet members, nor were they bureaucrats from powerful ministries like Construction or Agriculture," says Tsuneo Watanabe, a research associate at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, who frequently visits Japan. He adds that "Some day, Matsushita graduates will be running Japan."

In addition to Matsuzawa, two other graduates declared their candidacy for the Democratic Party leadership position earlier this month.

At least one graduate of the Matsushita Institute is mentioned in the media almost every day: if not the feisty 38-year-old mayor of Yokohama, Hiroshi Nakata, then Yoshihiko Noda, a possible rival of Matsuzawa for the leadership of the Democrats. The sole female graduate of the Institute in the Diet, Sanae Takaichi, also crops up regularly in news reports. Like Matsuzawa, she is a former staffer of the US Congress.

Graduates share intense loyalty

Konosuke Matsushita founded the Matsushita Institute 23 years ago, toward the end of his life, not to promote the refrigerators, television sets, and Panasonic computers that gave his name instant recognition around the world, but to train promising young men and women aiming to make politics their career. The Institute runs on a $100 million endowment from the founder's personal fortune.

Like Matsuzawa, most of the Matsushita graduates are Democrats, but a few belong to the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), while some are independent. Besides the 21 who are members of the Diet, another 30 or so are in municipal or prefectural (state) legislatures, and four are mayors, including Hiroshi Yamada, the chief executive of Suginami Ward in Tokyo.

Whatever their party affiliation, they share an intense loyalty to their "juku" (private school) as they call the Institute, and to each other. "Several of us are candidates for the leadership of the Democrat Party, but I am sure that in the end we will unite around one candidate," says Matsuzawa.

He and fellow alumni supported Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he ran for the LDP leadership last year, because they believed in his pledge to bring about fundamental political and economic reforms. But as the months passed without the promised reforms, Matsuzawa and his fellow Democrats accused the prime minister of having been captured by the very establishment he had vowed to destroy.