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Silver-spoon politicians who rule

A growing number of politicians in Japan have “inherited” their parliamentary seats from their fathers. Unless this “hereditary” system is reversed, Japanese politics in all likelihood will continue on a path of decline.

Since last year, one impasse after another has developed in the nation’s legislative process. Some blame the divided Diet, where the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito commands a two-thirds majority in the Lower House while the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition groups hold more than half the seats in the Upper House.

But a close look at recent developments suggests that the root of the problem lies in the growing number of lawmakers who are filling their fathers’ shoes. This is true not only of rank-and-file politicians but also of leading figures in government.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is a second-generation politician. Though he worked in the private business sector after finishing school, he served as secretary to his father, former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, himself an elite bureaucrat of the Finance Ministry.

Even though the current prime minister is not a former civil servant, he has apparently inherited his father’s “DNA” as a leading bureaucrat.

Of the 18 members of the current Cabinet, at least nine are “hereditary” politicians: Prime Minister Fukuda, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, Education-Science Minister Kisaburo Tokai, Economy-Trade- Industry Minister Akira Amari, Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, State Minister in charge of Financial Services Yoshimi Watanabe, and State Minister in Charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories Fumio Kishida.

A number of “hereditary” figures hold important posts in major political parties. In the Liberal Democratic Party: Secretary General Bunmei Ibuki and his deputy, Hiroyuki Hosoda, Policy Research Council Chairman Sadakazu Tanigaki, and Diet Policy Committee Chairman Tadamori Oshima.

In the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), we have Party Chief Ichiro Ozawa, Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama, deputy party chiefs Katsuya Okada and Hajime Ishii, and supreme advisers Tsutomu Hata and Kozo Watanabe.

In Komeito, it’s Secretary General Kazuo Kitagawa.

In the People’s New Party, Rep. Tamisuke Watanuki, Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono and Vice Speaker Takahiro Yokomichi, and Upper House President Satsuki Eda are “hereditary” politicians.

There are 146 “hereditary” members (31 percent) in the Lower House and 32 such members (14 percent) in the Upper House.

An interesting comparison can be drawn between prime ministers who headed the government during the latter period of Emperor Showa’s reign and those who came to power after the current Emperor ascended to the throne in 1989.

None of the prime ministers during the earlier period was “hereditary”: Nobusuke Kishi, Hayato Ikeda, Eisaku Sato, Kakuei Tanaka, Takeo Miki, Takeo Fukuda, Masayoshi Ohira, Zenko Suzuki, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita.

By contrast, eight of the 12 prime ministers since 1989 have had fathers in the political arena: Kiichi Miyazawa, Morihiro Hosokawa, Tsutomu Hata, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. This means that two-thirds of the post-1989 heads of government are second- or third-generation politicians.

Nakasone, the only living pre-1989 prime minister, has lamented this tendency: “The number of second-generation politicians is on the rise. They have inherited their constituencies from their fathers and handled them as if they were private properties. This prevents the flow of fresh blood. Abolishing the single-seat constituency system is the only way to replace the old with the new in the political arena.”

There is no denying that Nakasone and other prime ministers of the pre-1989 era were dynamic figures with strong personalities. Those who have followed have not possessed similar characteristics and their tenures have been quite short — an average of 15 months except for Koizumi’s 5 1/2 years. This is a sign of political weakness.

For his part, Prime Minister Fukuda seems to see nothing wrong with political power being handed down from father to son. In a book published three years ago, he wrote: “The recent increase in the number of ‘hereditary’ politicians is not a phenomenon particular to Japan. It is terrific that, in the United States, the Bush father and son became presidents.”

He did not foresee himself becoming prime minister like his father, as the book was written before he took the reins of government. Fukuda went on to say: “It is a sign of stability in Japan that not only politicians but medical doctors and many others hand down their professions to their sons.

“If we were in an age of change, new faces would enter politics. In this age of peaceful living, however, sons want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and enter politics.”

It appears quite anachronistic for Fukuda not to notice that he and his country are in an age of change.

DPJ leader Ozawa looks at the situation differently. Also a second-generation politician, he says it is incumbent upon voters to decide whether the son of a politician is good or bad. He argues that the increase in the number of “hereditary” politicians is rooted in the vested interests of those who have long supported their fathers. The easiest way to maintain the status quo and to protect such interests, he believes, is to help sons inherit the political positions of their fathers.

This explains why many of the younger generations in the political arena do not have much of a future perspective. With some exceptions, third-generation politicians are worse than the second and the fourth is worse than the third. Unless this trend is reversed, politics in Japan will only deteriorate further.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social topics.