Japan pols: all in the family

Ahead of national elections Sunday, many of Japan's 'next generation' of leaders are the sons and daughters of the political elite.

Here in a sleepy western coastal town known for six-foot snows in winter and heavy rice crops in summer, Japan's single most popular politician is wowing them outside a grocery store.

Makiko Tanaka, the blunt-talking former foreign minister, cracks folksy jokes about life as a housewife, even while calling "family" the most important social unit in Japan. With national elections coming Sunday, it is an appeal to traditional values by Japan's leading critic of bad bank loans and public-works pork.

Yet family has further meaning for Mrs. Tanaka, whose vote-getting skills are widely credited with having elected current prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001: Tanaka's father was one of Japan's most prominent prime ministers.

In fact, it is hard to find a leading politician in Japan - or even a newcomer - who is not the son, daughter, son-in-law, or sibling inside a long established political family. In a trend taking place throughout a highly media-oriented, globalized Asia, political parties in Japan, whether on the right, left, or in the middle, are all selling themselves as harbingers of a "new generation" of fresh leaders. But in Japan, these new generations are coming from a narrowing pool of elites that make up a kind of political samurai class.

"Japanese political elites are now becoming hereditary, a sort of political caste," says Takashi Inoguchi, a University of Tokyo political scientist. "It is difficult for other sectors to participate in politics now that these family barriers get higher and more difficult to breach."

Take Shinzo Abe, for example, the current secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the man anointed by Mr. Koizumi as his new No. 2. Mr. Abe's father was a former foreign minister, and his grandfather was a general in the Imperial Army. Abe is 49 - and is an example of the politics of youth and charm brought by the youthful, coiffed Koizumi when he was elected. Analysts here widely agree that the LDP, long a bastion of gray-flannel machine politics, must put forward a younger image - one reason why Koizumi remains popular. (Last week, in a show of strength, Koizumi ousted one of the LDP's toughest and most senior powerbrokers, Yasuhiro Nakasone, who is 85.)

Deep familial ties

In a recent survey of the LDP, some 30 percent of its elected members have family ties to other current or former elected officials. The son of Naoto Kan, leader of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, is standing for a seat in the Diet - and campaigning with his father.

Koizumi himself comes from a political family: Both his father and grandfather were Diet members. The current cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, is the son of a prime minister. Rising star of the LDP, Yuko Obuchi, is the daughter of a prime minister. Ousted LDP leader Mr. Nakasone has a son in Japan's upper house. The list goes on.

In Tokyo this week, as well, the most popular politician in the city, hard-line nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara, introduced his son Hirotaka as a candidate for the Japanese Diet. The elder Mr. Ishihara, reelected this spring by a landslide, stood on top of a truck in the rain in the same south Tokyo neighborhood that Ishihara had once represented, and told voters to "take good care of my son." On the blue windbreakers worn by Hirotaka's supporters are the words "New Era, New Man - a new leader for a new generation."

Benefiting from the Ishihara name

The senior Ishihara says it is a mistake to think that his son's candidacy is part of a system of family coattails.

"We are not operating a family system here. When I retired from this seat, I asked my son to run, and he refused. He wanted to go into the private sector," he told the Monitor.

Yet Hirotaka Ishihara showed some differences of opinion with his famous father, when asked about his candidacy. "Of course I'm benefiting from the Ishihara name," says Hirotaka. "I'm not yet a new leader for a new generation. I haven't even been elected yet. I will try to be a new leader."

Yet in a week in which two Korean groups lodged a grievance with a UN agency over nationalist comments made by the senior Ishihara about Japan's colonization of Korea as being a benefit to the Korean people - the son distanced himself: "My father is a rather outspoken person," said Hirotaka. "I try to put more emphasis on the 'we' - on what we share as people."

Some candidates who do not have close family ties find it ironic that while Japan seeks a new generation and voters want "change" - the new generation of change should originate from the old families. The most common question asked goes something like this: How are families who made their fortunes by close ties to civil service, local contractors, and senior party members who made up the bulk of Japan's top-heavy system of patronage and public works going to reform the very system that they built and maintain?

"Second and third generation Diet members cannot carry out structural reforms of the government because their cozy ties with bureaucrats were established by their fathers and grandfathers," argues Jin Matsubara, who will run against the younger Ishihara in south Tokyo.

Political scientist Mr. Inoguchi says the jury is still very much out on the family system in Japanese politics: "As long as this new political caste puts out talented candidates, things are fine. I sometimes worry though that we are just seeing the happy boys and girls who haven't thought too much about their responsibilities but who find it easy to win a seat."

Tanaka also says that she worries about sons and daughters of leading politicians who "haven't studied very hard" and who don't take an independent position.

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