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.
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.
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.
Today, most of them, including Matsuzawa, believe the problem is how to develop strong, credible, alternative leaders, even if not well known by the public at large.
Matsuzawa believes the time is ripe for a generational change in Japanese politics. "We used to support older leaders," he said. "But now we see that, if we want change, we have to rely on ourselves."
"Our task is to carry out the kind of thoroughgoing reforms that Koizumi has not been able to achieve," adds Matsuzawa, his face tanned from years of early-morning campaign speeches at commuter train stations.
Veteran journalist Shinichi Yamada of Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper, describes the Matsushita graduates as mainstream reformers, in the sense that they may be conservatives or liberals but not Socialists or Communists. "You're not likely to find them in the labor unions." Generally, they call for smaller government, deregulation, and competition in an open market, instead of the highly centralized government led by bureaucrats that has characterized postwar Japan.
The Institute offers an unusual program. Although it gives each fellow a generous stipend, it grants no degrees and requires only one year of organized studies on its seaside campus south of Tokyo. Those studies include not only subjects such as politics, economics, and international relations, but also cultural disciplines like the tea ceremony and practical subjects like speech-making and debate. Even physical endurance is a requirement, featuring a 60-mile walk within a 24-hour period, or a winter night in the snow with little more than a sleeping bag, a plastic sheet, and five hardtack biscuits.
The day starts with cleaning the dormitory premises, a run on the beach before breakfast, and a joint recitation of the Institute rules, teachings, and "Five Oaths."
"It was a bit like being in a military school," Matsuzawa recalls. Some fellows are fresh from universities and others have several years of business or other experience under their belt.
When he was alive, the patriarchal Matsushita, although in his mid-eighties at the time, often visited the school and spoke informally with the students.
"Politics is really management," he once said. "A successful government should be an outstanding example of management. After all, in business, he who fails in management will have to go out of business. Why not in politics?"
Once the obligatory first year is accomplished, the remainder of a four-to-five year fellowship reduced to three years today is tailored to the individual fellow's own interests and aims.
While Matsuzawa spent a year in Washington, other student projects have included investigations of sewage and waste disposal by urban communities and studies of rural communities which have been denuded of working-age people, leaving only grandparents and small children.
Not all Matsushita graduates go on to politics. Of the Institute's 192 alumni (21 of whom are women), 41 percent are in politics, 29 percent are in business, and 16 percent are in the media, think tanks, or nonprofit organizations.