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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 Takehiko KambayashiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2009

Shimonoseki, Japan

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

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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.

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.