In election season, Japan's voters more skeptical of 'hereditary' candidates

Amid recession woes, some politicians see an opening in a system long tipped toward political families.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Just a few years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a political neophyte like Takako Tokura to try to crack into politics.

But today, Ms. Tokura, a vivacious mother of three, is on the stump. Her goal: to represent Yamaguchi Prefecture's 4th District in the House of Representatives in an election that is expected to be held in late August or in early September.

It's a gutsy move for an unknown. For one thing, her audience in the venerable city of Shimonoseki, where she is contesting the seat, has a long tradition of supporting the next generation of well known political families. Indeed, her opponent is former prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose father, Shintaro, was a foreign minister, and grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, also held the prime ministership.

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But Tokura – whose candidacy is seen as a long shot – is convinced that the country is ready for fresh blood.

The political climate has changed since former Prime Minister Abe and his successor, Yasuo Fukuda (whose father also served as premier) abruptly stepped down under pressure. And their woes, analysts say, have contributed to growing skepticism about both the qualifications of hereditary politicians and the merits of giving certain families such a strong grip on power.

"This could mark the beginning of a permanent shift, and it is a shift that could ultimately help shake up Japanese politics," says Akikazu Hashimoto, a political science professor at J. F. Oberlin University in Tokyo. "This is probably the first time we've seen the pendulum swing against them."

The image of hereditary politicians has been further aggravated by policy flip-flops and weak leadership from Mr. Aso – himself the grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, and the son-in-law of Zenko Suzuki, also a former premier. Major polls show 60 to 70 percent of those surveyed don't support Aso's cabinet.

Tokura is running for office in one of Japan's most conservative regions, a stronghold of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the hometown of Mr. Abe and Yoshimasa Hayashi, a newly appointed minister of economic and fiscal policy and a fourth-generation lawmaker.

But even here, Tamotsu Tomoda, who is close to Abe, was defeated in the March race for Shimonoseki mayor, while, last month, in the nearby city of Ube, Kimiko Kubota, who rose from a citizen group leader, won the mayoral poll and will become the first woman mayor in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

"Many people are asking us to change [Japanese politics]," says Tokura, a member of the major opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

Ruling party's hereditary tradition

While political dynasties have held sway in the United States – think the Kennedys and the Bushes – in Japan they exert more influence in the nation's politics.

"If you include those whose grandfather was a local assembly member, the total number of hereditary politicians makes up about 50 percent of LDP lawmakers," says Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.

Moreover, politicians invest in forming support groups. The koenkai, which are usually backed by local business leaders, connects the politicians to constituents.

The local organization provides votes and money, while, in return, politicians give them things like business licensing, regulatory approvals, and public works projects.

"The koenkai is an organization that keeps a patronage system," says Mr. Iwai. "Given their money, name recognition, and organizational power, it is easier for hereditary politicians to win. But that prevents a capable person from running in that seat."

I'm a reformer – but want my son to get my seat

The institution of a political dynasty is so entrenched that former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, known as a top reformer, is now working to help his son Shinjiro "inherit" his seat after announcing his retirement from politics.

"The times have changed. But [politicians] still succeed using old ideas and old styles of politics. They cannot breathe new ideas into the political system," argues Mr. Hashimoto of J. F. Oberlin University.

Even so, in Yokosuka, the hometown of Mr. Koizumi that lies just south of Tokyo, incumbent Ryoichi Kabaya lost to 33-year-old Yuto Yoshida in the June mayoral election – despite Koizumi's endorsement.

The DPJ puts some limits on candidates whose parents or close relatives were lawmakers. The LDP tried, but could not.

In Yamaguchi, candidate Tokura, who helped her husband run a small business in Shunan, an industrial town 450 miles west of Tokyo, is critical of second- and third-generation politicians like Abe.

Tokura, whose father works as a fisherman, has witnessed a number of contractors going under, while more locals have been forced to shutter their businesses, she says.

She emphasizes that hereditary politicians like Abe, who grew up and went to a private school in Tokyo, are out of touch with local struggles. She is proud to say all her family members, including their three children, have attended local public schools.

"Many here are finding it hard to make ends meet," says Tokura, who led a local team in plans to revitalize the area and also spearheaded the sales of blowfish – a local delicacy – at a nationwide exhibition. "The government budget proposal is just for the haves. We have to invest in education and social-security services."

Hisatsugu Ishimori, a first-time DPJ candidate, also faces formidable challenges as he tries to defeat Hajime Funada, a third-generation LDP lawmaker in the Tochigi 1st District, about 60 miles north of Tokyo, which sits on the buckle of the nation's conservative belt.

Mr. Ishimori, a burly brain surgeon and former champion rugby player, has witnessed the breakdown of the medical care system.

"Even though there's an excessive burden being imposed on medical staff, the patients still aren't getting adequate care," he says.

Ishimori says he wants to get into politics to repair a damaged system. He's already visited nearly 30,000 households in the district.

"Japan has a lot of potential," he says. "We should invest in people."

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