Kenyu Ito always thought there were better ways to contribute to Japan than becoming a politician. The medical doctor saw his primary care services for the people in Sanya, the day laborers’ district in Taito Ward, Tokyo, as his way to help society from the bottom up.
After seeing how inept the government was in gauging the gravity of the radioactive fallout from the triple-meltdown crisis that started last year at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, he concluded the current crop of lawmakers are incapable of making decisions about his country.
“Lawmakers in this country can’t even do the most basic things properly,” said the 41-year-old Ito, “because the current electoral system fails to elect people who are truly knowledgeable about the issues and able to bring change. I would like to change that.”
To get a grounding in politics, Ito attended two schools, one run by a political party and the other a nonpolitical entity, to learn the policymaking process and what it takes to lead the country.
Anger like Ito’s is bubbling up among the public. Many people are getting fed up with and disillusioned by politicians who spend most of their time in partisan wrangling and protecting their interests while the country goes downhill.
Having learned their votes haven’t helped steer Japan out of the gridlock, some are joining growing protests in front of the prime minister’s office. Others, like Ito, are taking more direct action by joining schools for politician wannabes to challenge the old guard in the next election.
“Historically, people with regular jobs have refrained from running for public office, because the cost and risk of becoming jobless are so intimidating,” said Shigeki Uno, a University of Tokyo social science professor. “But now many fear that Japan is running out of decent candidates in both the ruling and opposition camps.”
Capitalizing on the sense of urgency, local leaders and political parties are opening schools to groom candidates for the next Lower House election.
One such crash course, offered by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s group Osaka Ishin no Kai, or One Osaka, has already attracted more than 2,000 people ranging from aspiring politicians who want to take advantage of its growing power to disgruntled housewives and students who want to complain or learn about politics. Other local leaders, including Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and Shiga Gov. Yukiko Kada, have jumped on the bandwagon to solidify their bases with reform-minded recruits.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and opposition leader Liberal Democratic Party have similar systems to groom candidates.
Students attend lectures by experts on politics and economics. Based on their performance, parties tap promising candidates and teach them how to build up constituencies, make speeches, raise funds and other aspects of nuts-and-bolts politics.
“The final endorsement is not based on the candidates’ ability to propose legislation but their likability by the rank and file of the party,” said a campaigner for the ruling DPJ who asked that his name not be used. “More importantly, they are looking for candidates who won’t rebel against party-endorsed bills.”
Some students, however, say lecture-based courses and learning election strategies don’t do enough to equip candidates with policymaking skills, which is the most fundamental role of politicians. Some also feel the party-sponsored schools lack diversity of political views.
Counterintuitive to their title of “lawmaker,” Diet members sponsor less than 30 percent of the bills that are passed in an average Diet session. That means the majority of votes are on bureaucrat-contrived and -initiated bills submitted by the Cabinet.
To get hands-on experience in policymaking and develop a broader perspective, some students also take leadership courses at private schools.
“Without knowing how to create and propose policies, it is impossible to bring about change,” said Masakatsu Noguchi, 34, who has attended several party-sponsored schools since college. He wants to promote deregulation in the pharmaceutical industry so it can develop more effective medicine for hard-to-cure diseases like Parkinson’s.
Noguchi, who has a doctorate in life science from Kyoto University and currently works for Dream Incubator Inc., is enrolled in private schools, including the Japan School of Policy Making.
At these private schools, students get real-life opportunities to engage in making policies for politicians and municipalities.
“The current political system is not truly democratic, because lawmakers are not diverse enough to propose the bills that reflect the real needs of the people,” said Sakuichi Konno, who founded the Japan School of Policy Making in November after witnessing the inability of lawmakers to deal with the March 11, 2011, disasters.
The “system” in Japan requires the “sanban,” or the three must-haves to win in an election. Sanban refers to “jiban” (constituency), “kanban” (reputation) and “kaban” (money).
Konno has statistics showing that of the 479 current members of the Lower House, 280 are from the public sector, including former secretaries for lawmakers, bureaucrats, or ex-members of local and prefectural assemblies — people likely to be blessed with the three prerequisites.
Konno’s school trains people without such advantages by having them create projects for politicians with social media tools — something Japanese politicians have yet to understand, let alone embrace.
Konno, who has experience in running schools to cultivate political leaders, says social media promote transparency and interactive communications with voters. They also help voters choose politicians based on their platforms and performance rather than party affiliation.
Meanwhile, Aoyama Shachu, a Tokyo-based think tank that also operates a leadership school, has been offering lectures since last year to nurture young leaders beyond the political realm.
Ichiro Asahina, CEO of Aoyama Shachu and a former bureaucrat at the trade ministry, said the purpose of the school is not to create politicians but to provide young people with tools and incentives to change society.
To motivate the students, Asahina, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, created a curriculum to teach how past leaders, from Julius Caesar to Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs, took risks to bring about change.
His course also teaches how the bureaucratic system works, capitalizing on his experience as a civil servant who pushed for change by forming Project K, a group of reform-minded bureaucrats, in 2003.
Before finishing the first year, Asahina said, students are already establishing NPOs to carry out their visions and undertaking projects for cities, towns and villages.
“One does not have to be a politician,” said Asahina. “There are many ways to bring change to society.”