American Flavor Spices Japan's Election: Pols With US Degrees Talk Issues, Not Pork


The rsums of a growing number of Japanese politicians contain some familiar names: Stanford, Columbia, Georgetown.

Japan's politicians are entering a final 48 hours of campaigning before national elections this Sunday and among them dozens of candidates with US university degrees are seeking seats in the powerful lower house of parliament.

These internationally experienced aspiring leaders are a force for change, analysts say, bringing a more cosmopolitan and issue-oriented approach to a political system that is rooted in patronage and parochialism. US-educated politicians already in office say they are bringing a more substantive grasp of policy to parliament.

A decade ago a degree from a foreign university would have been considered an irrelevant aspect of a candidate's past, or perhaps a liability.

But these days a government-sponsored political commercial for candidates of the opposition New Frontier Party (NFP) highlights one politician's MBA from Stanford University, another's degree from George Washington University, and shows a third speaking on the phone in English, illustrating his day job as an international lawyer.

"It's a whole new class of ruling elite," says John Neuffer, an American specialist on Japanese politics at the Mitsui Marine Research Institute, a corporate-funded think tank in Tokyo. "The guys I see coming out have a refreshing, cosmopolitan understanding of the world and some ideas as to how to fix Japan."

"Being in the US or in other countries gives you a chance to look at Japan from the outside," says Ichita Yamamoto, a member of parliament's upper house from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). "This is a plus when you think about Japanese foreign policy." Mr. Yamamoto studied at Georgetown University in Washington and says he and other US-trained parliamentarians tend to be more interested in policy than their homegrown colleagues.

A rising number of politicians interested in actual issues may not sound like news, but in Japan the handling of policy has generally been left to unelected bureaucrats, while politicians have concentrated on building up voter loyalty by funneling public-works projects toward their constituencies.

Reforms enacted in 1994 were intended to encourage the rise of politicians who would debate policy and then run the government with a firmer grasp of the affairs of state. It's too soon to tell whether this plan is working, but this campaign has drawn a more diverse crop of candidates, including those educated abroad.

A cursory survey of the rosters of the LDP and the NFP, the two largest parties, shows at least 36 US-educated candidates, 17 of whom are newcomers to national politics. Others have worked for American politicians or had experience working for foreign corporations.

No one has done a comparative study, but political observers say these numbers represent an increase in comparison with previous elections.

One of Japan's most visible politicians, Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party, received a PhD in engineering from Stanford University in California in 1976. Ironically, Mr. Hatoyama has been criticized for advocating amorphous, feel-good policies - such as "the spirit of fraternity" - which seems fitting for a man who spent the early 1970s living in San Francisco.

Political commentator Yasushi Haga agrees that US-trained politicians are exerting some influence, but wonders whether they can handle "the realities" of Japanese politics. Mr. Haga says that Hatoyama has been part of the ruling coalition for three years without accomplishing much. "He hasn't been very influential."

An American degree, says political scientist Yasunori Sone of Tokyo's Keio University, "adds flavor, but not necessarily content" to a political candidate. Nonetheless, he notes that Japan is in the middle of a political transition from "a pork-barrel, parochial type of politics to a more policy-oriented approach." And in this context, he adds, international experience - particularly political training abroad - "can be very important."

Members of Japan's elite have long looked abroad for inspiration and education for more than a century.

Hatoyama's great-grandfather Kazuo studied at Yale and Columbia before going on to become the Speaker of the lower house of parliament and a junior Cabinet minister in the last years of the 19th century. The late Takeo Miki, who was prime minister in the mid-1970s, studied at Southwestern University (which was later absorbed into the University of Southern California) from 1932 to 1934.

In the tradition of Japan's political aristocracy, Tatsu Miki, his grandson, is now running for a seat in parliament on a Democratic Party ticket. In 1995 he received a master's degree from Columbia University in New York, where he studied East Asian affairs and, of all things, Japanese politics.

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