Japan's opposition touts fresh faces in bid for election victory

The Democratic Party of Japan has promoted women and younger candidates who have not risen through traditional routes to power.

By , Staff writer

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    Mari Kushibuchi, a former director of Peace Boat, an international NGO, is a Democratic Party of Japan candidate in Tokyo's 23rd district.
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Mari Kushibuchi is an energy bunny.

Even at the end of a hard day on the campaign trail Friday, two days before Japan's parliamentary elections, she was racing around the railroad station forecourt in this Tokyo suburb, clutching the hands of anyone who showed even passing interest in her manifesto.

The display of hyperactivity was deliberate, and not just because Ms. Kushibuchi is anxious to win every last vote she can. Her party, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is "projecting a new image compared to the old politics," she says, "an image of energy."

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In her hot-pink T-shirt and white slacks, first-time candidate Ms. Kushibuchi, who is 41, says her key talking points with voters are that "I'm a woman, I'm fresh, and I'm new."

That message seems to be going over well with the Japanese electorate, fed up with the cliquish Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after almost 55 years of unbroken rule, according to opinion polls. The DPJ is slated to win a landslide victory in Sunday's elections to the lower house of parliament.

Kushibuchi is one of a raft of younger candidates that the DPJ has put up (60 percent are under 50), signaling a generational sea change in Japanese politics.

"The LDP has dominated postwar politics, and it has a strong tendency to find new candidates in its own world," says Noriaki Tsuchiya, deputy director of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. "Young politicians had to wait around for 100 years" before they got a chance to run for office.

"The DPJ is much more flexible," he adds. "There will be far more opportunities for young people than in LDP days."

The women and young hopefuls whom the DPJ has fielded, often against ruling party heavyweights (Kushibuchi's opponent has held the seat in this prosperous western suburb of the capital for nine terms), are a big part of the party's appeal.

For years, Japanese voters have put up with a system in which some LDP grandees would not even deign to visit their constituencies during election campaigns, leaving it up to supportive lobby groups to rally the troops.

"Many Japanese people want a new kind of candidate, that's why people like her," says Makiko Sugiura, a young woman who stopped briefly at Kushibuchi's campaign event Friday to take a manifesto. "She looks new."

Also in the firing line nowadays are the so-called "hereditary politicians," scions of political families who have controlled their constituencies for generations. They have lost some of their luster since the past three Japanese prime ministers, all regarded as failures, came from such political families.

So will the next one, in fact, suggesting that the tradition is by no means dead. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama's grandfather took over as prime minister from LDP leader Taro Aso's grandfather in 1954, just as Mr. Hatoyama hopes to take over from Mr. Aso next week.

But this election has brought a new sort of politician to the fore, candidates who have nothing to do with the three traditional sources of Japanese parliamentary contenders – the civil service, the labor unions, and the hereditary families.

"We are getting a lot of response, especially from young people," says Kushibuchi. "It's unprecedented."

She is not the only new DPJ politician to try to shake young Japanese voters out of their traditional apathy.

Zenko Kurishita, a US-educated, 26-year-old salesman for Oracle, stood for election to the Tokyo city government last month because "I think young people themselves can change the situation," he says, "and I want to get people like me more interested."

The power of that message, and the scale of voters' disaffection with the ruling LDP, showed in the municipal election results. The untested Mr. Kurishita announced his bid to unseat the six-term LDP incumbent only nine days before the vote. He won.

"We may not have experience of politics," he says of his cohorts now entering national political life, "and that is a weak point. But it is also a strong point, because we see things through citizens' eyes."

That link with ordinary voters, often lacking in traditional LDP politicians, is something that Kushibuchi, too, sees as key. One of the things about her that goes over well with voters, she says, is that she worked for 17 years for a nongovernmental organization involved in peace and development education.

"I'm part of a new civil society," she says, "and civil society groups always work with the people."

"A new breed is entering the political world and they will change the Japanese political system," predicts Mr. Tsuchiya, whose institute trains young people hoping for a career in politics. "That will be good for Japan."

Takehiko Kambayashi contributed reporting to this article.

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