Family Connections Growing in Importance in Japanese Politics

Times Staff Writer

Hirofumi Nakasone, the son of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, was a year old when he took part in his first political campaign. His mother carried him, strapped on her back, as she campaigned with her husband.

Now, at age 40, the younger Nakasone is fulfilling what one rival described as his destiny--to take over the family business, politics.

He is stumping on his own for the first time in a campaign for a seat in the upper house of Parliament. If he wins, the post will give him a place to wait until his father leaves the seat he has occupied since 1947 in the powerful lower house.


The younger Nakasone is just one of a growing number of Liberal Democratic Party members who, in connection-conscious Japan, have, in effect, inherited--or expect to inherit--a seat in Parliament.

In this Sunday’s parliamentary election, 35% of the conservatives running for the lower house and 16% of those running for the upper house are either sons, sons-in-law, or brothers of former or incumbent legislators. Most of them have taken over so-called “supporters’ associations"--political machines--that were built by their fathers.

In addition, a husband and wife are running for separate seats, and a widow and her stepson are battling each other for the right to succeed a politician who died two years ago.

One family of politicians is in its fourth generation. Former Foreign Minister Iichiro Hatoyama, whose grandfather was Speaker of the lower house and whose father was prime minister, is seeking reelection to the upper house, and two of his sons are running for the lower house.

Because of the dominance of so many political dynasties, politics in Japan has come to deal less with the issues than with pork-barrel considerations such as patronage and home-district interests.

Pork Barrel Politics

Takashi Hosomi, head of the government’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, even blames the pork-barrel nature of politics for impairing Japan’s ability to exercise international leadership.

Hosomi once told an interviewer: “Instead of talking about how to deal with the United States or the Soviet Union, politicians declare, ‘If you elect me. I will work hard for all of you. I will carry out pork-barrel politics. I absolutely will not allow agricultural imports to be liberalized. Please give me your vote.’ And the people think that kind of politician is good.”

Twenty-five candidates representing opposition parties are also seeking to follow in a relative’s footsteps in Sunday’s election, but the practice is virtually a hallmark of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which despite its name is a party of conservatives.

Unlike the opposition parties, which attract mainly party-oriented votes from labor unions or religious groups or other special-interest groups, the conservatives tend to draw their support from associations formed for the most part in support of an individual. Only coincidentally do these associations work for the Liberal Democratic Party.

Hirofumi Nakasone’s candidacy makes his father the 11th of 13 conservative prime ministers since World War II to bring a relative into politics. The 10 others have among them four sons, five sons-in-law, two grandsons, a grandson-in-law, a brother-in-law and a nephew in the running Sunday.

Strong Family Pressures

Even in the rare instance when a politician discourages a son from following in his footsteps, the pressure from other relatives or constituents can be too strong to resist.

Kumi Tarumi of the International Bureau of the Liberal Democratic Party recalls a well-known politician who said publicly that he opposed politics as a “hereditary business.” Nevertheless, she said, his son is among Sunday’s candidates.

Hirofumi Nakasone also comes to politics after vowing that he would never run for office. He grew up wanting to stay out of politics, and as a teen-ager he said repeatedly that he would never get involved. Eight years ago, when he married, he promised his wife he would stay out.

But after a 15-year business career and three years as secretary to his father in the prime minister’s office, he succumbed. What turned him around was an argument made on his father’s behalf. The elder Nakasone is prime minister by virtue of being president of the Liberal Democratic Party, and his term as party president ends in October. His advisers argued that in order for him to “go out with a flourish,” he should see to it that his party wins both of the two upper house seats at issue Sunday in his district in Gumma prefecture. The younger Nakasone, it was argued, would be the only candidate strong enough to ensure this.

A Political Inheritance

On the party ticket with young Nakasone in Gumma is Hiroichi Fukuda, 72, a member of another “political family” with three politicians in the running. It is headed by former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, 81, and includes a son-in-law running in Tokyo. Hiroichi Fukuda has made it clear that his son, Yasuo, is in line to inherit his political assets.

Koji Toyama, a Fukuda campaign manager, dismissed the Nakasone camp’s argument about the prime minister’s need to bow out with a flourish. He said Hirofumi was running simply because his father wanted his to follow in his footsteps. Hirofumi’s candidacy, Toyama said, “is the destiny of a man who was born as the son of a politician.”

On occasion, the death of a member of Parliament touches off a free-for-all among members of his family, his secretaries and leaders of his support association. Political issues are seldom a factor in the succession.

In Kumamoto prefecture, Tenkoko Sonoda, the widow of Sunao Sonoda, a former foreign minister, and Hiroyuki Sonoda, his son from an earlier marriage, are both trying to take over Sonoda’s political organization.

The Sacred Machine

Katsumi Kobayashi, the younger Sonoda’s campaign manager, said that years of effort and huge sums of money go into building up such machines, and to let them disintegrate would be virtually sacrilegious.

“A supporters’ association is a politician’s fortune,” he said. “Giving it away to an outsider is profane.”

Between elections, the supporters’ associations deal with all sorts of voter problems, from getting a son into college or finding a job for a relative to intervening with government officials to stop an investigation or build a bridge or pave a road. The associations carefully take note of constituents’ birthdays and weddings and funerals.

Keeping in touch with constituents requires huge sums of money. When a member of Parliament goes abroad he sends back great numbers of postcards to keep members of his association informed about his progress. A politician facing a difficult election might send back as many as 10,000 postcards on a single trip, for the larger associations number in the hundreds of thousands of members.

31 Years of Control

There are so many conservative supporters’ associations around the country that the Liberal Democratic Party is believed to be virtually guaranteed of about 250 of the 511 seats in the lower house, just shy of a majority. They account for the party’s unbroken control of the government since it was formed in 1955.

Toyama, the campaign manager for Fukuda, said that passing a supporters’ association along to a member of the family is often the only way to preserve the machine after a politician dies.

“If one of a dozen or so lieutenants in a supporters’ association is chosen as successor, the others resent it,” he said. “Frequently they rebel, and the organization splits up. The easiest way to keep the lieutenants united is to have the son succeed the father.”

Clearly this logic has taken hold. Since the last election three years ago, the number of conservative “hereditary candidates,” including those who failed to win the endorsement of the Liberal Democratic Party, has increased from 117 to 134, according to the newspaper Asahi.

Campaigns Are Costly

Because the average campaign costs in excess of $1 million, most aspiring politicians find it too expensive to go out on their own. Riding on the name of a relative or taking over a supporters’ association is not only quicker and cheaper but more likely to succeed.

In 1980, when Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira died in the middle of the campaign, his son-in-law, Hajime Morita, took over as the candidate and won more votes than Ohira got in any of the 11 preceding elections.

In the last lower house election in December, 1983, nearly 80% of the conservatives’ “family candidates” won--compared to about 70% of all conservative candidates.

Indirectly, the ruling party promotes “hereditary politics” when it decides whom to endorse as an official candidate. According to Tarumi, the party sees as the primary factor a candidate’s chance of winning--"and if a candidate is inheriting a supporters’ association, the chances of victory are greater.”

Political insiders say that the key to victory is summed up as jiban, kaban, kamban. The first is foundation, in this case the supporter association; the second is money (literally, “briefcase”), and the third is reputation, or name value.

Support From 350,000

The younger Nakasone has a foundation and a name by virtue of being his father’s son. Also, he has rounded up 350,000 supporters to form an association of his own, which adds to the support he is getting from his father’s.

Teruji Takashima, a veteran politician who runs young Nakasone’s campaign headquarters, said the briefcase, or money, problem had been taken care of, too, though he would give no details.

“He (Hirofumi) has all three, plus a pleasant personality,” Takashima said. “He is very polite, even if you go to him to ask for a favor. He leaves you with a good feeling when you ask him for something.”

Family connections really only matter in the candidate’s first try for political office, said Takashima. After that, a son is likely to be judged on his own “strong and weak points,” rather than the family name, he added.

Takashima made it clear that he as well as others in the prefecture have some favors to ask after the election.

“Hirofumi will make requests to the ministries on his own, but on big projects he will get together with his father, the prime minister,” Takashima said. “Voters will expect Hirofumi to do the smaller things that his father doesn’t have time to do.”