Japan’s dynasty politics losing favor among the public

Times Staff Writer

Pedigree matters in a country where politics is often a family business.

Take a look at the top echelon of Japanese politics: Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is the son of a prime minister. His predecessor was the grandson of a prime minister. So was the man he defeated to win his party’s leadership last fall. And when he looks across the aisle in parliament, he sees yet another second-generation politician leading the opposition.

They are just the tip of Japan’s hereditary iceberg. America has its Bushes and its Kennedys, but it does not come close to matching the pervasiveness of family ties in Japanese politics, where local party machines are handed down like heirlooms from father to son -- and very occasionally to a daughter.

“Dynastic politics provides candidates with the three things they need to get elected: access to a local machine, access to money and a well-known brand name,” said Kazuhiro Furuyama, director of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management.

The result is a parliament in which more than 30% of elected members from all parties are second-, third-, fourth- or even fifth-generation politicians. The fourth generation of the Hatoyama family boasts two brothers who hold senior positions in rival parties: Kunio, the current justice minister, and his older brother Yukio, a leading spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.


The percentage of the seshuu giin (hereditary members of the Diet, or parliament) is even higher within Fukuda’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has always recruited heavily from the political dynasties. Nearly 40% of the LDP’s 308 members of the lower house are the sons, daughters or in-laws of politicians.

The seshuu giin have been contesting and winning elections in significant numbers since the 1960s, but critics argue that their power has increased in recent years. In a 2005 article titled “From Technocracy to Aristocracy: The Changing Career Paths of Japanese Politicians,” American academic Christopher Titus North argued that the seshuu giin have acquired more clout than the bureaucrats who have long been seen as the guiding hand in Japanese politics.

Second-generation politicians have usually defended their inheritance as a way to sustain a bond between lawmakers and constituents. But the public appears to be growing impatient with a political class that behaves more like a private club than a profession. Japan’s current political drift has led to a chorus of complaints that politicians seem more intent on jockeying for power than on fixing the country’s sluggish economy and festering social problems.

Shinzo Abe, a third-generation politician who left the prime minister’s office in failure last September, was widely mocked for being “KY,” a youth expression short for kuuki (air) and yomenai (can’t read), describing someone who is clueless.

“The Japanese public sees the [seshuu giin] as a big problem and the reason that politics is so stagnant,” said Furuyama, whose institute was established to boost the careers of aspiring leaders who lack family connections. “Relying so much on second-generation politicians means there is a limited pool to draw from, and the quality of leadership reaches a limit.”

Japanese politics is clearly in a rut. Since wresting control of the upper house from the LDP in elections last July, opposition parties have been trying to force the government into an early election by blocking, or threatening to block, major legislation. For its part, the LDP is battling unfavorable polls that raise the specter of an even greater drubbing should it try to break the standoff by calling an election.

Many reasons are offered to explain why Japanese politicians seem so jarringly out of touch. One problem is that women account for just 12% of the 722 lawmakers. There is also a sense that dynastic succession breeds insular politicians, many of them handed the right to run for the family seat with little experience outside politics.

The dominance of hereditary politicians may also explain why Japanese politics has recently devoted so much time to historical issues. Abe’s administration, carrying the grievances of fathers and grandfathers who were wartime politicians and industrialists, often seemed more interested in the politics of 1945 than in the problems of the 21st century. That obsession never resonated with the public.

There are chinks in the armor of the seshuu giin. The most popular politician in the country may be Miyazaki prefecture Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, whose preparation for politics was as a comedian. He has shown that celebrity can provide a path to power.

Another challenge comes from the Matsushita Institute, established by the late industrialist Konosuke Matsushita in 1979 to address what he saw as Japan’s “leadership deficit.” The institute aims to develop leaders from a broader social background. About 100 of its 227 alumni have been elected to local or federal office.

In fact, parliament saw a slight drop in the number of seshuu giin, in part because of the thrashing delivered to the LDP in last summer’s upper house elections. Their numbers are also down slightly in the lower house because then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (a rare breed: a third-generation politician and a maverick) recruited celebrities and others outside political circles when he called a snap election in 2005. But so far, the so-called Koizumi’s children have had little effect on political culture.

“The transition is happening, but it’s slow,” Furuyama said. “It’s hard to find people willing to risk their jobs to challenge candidates with all the family advantages.”

“The reliance on family succession is historical, a sort of underground current that still flows through Japan, whether in business or in politics,” said Kunihiko Okada, public management professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “The old ways are changing in business because globalization is forcing companies to compete abroad and make profits. . . .

“But politics is strictly domestic. In politics, there is no pressure to change.”

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.