Minoru Fujimoto, 31, has wavy, dyed brown hair. He is one of the new breed of “smiling” Japanese Communist Party members, whose appearance may surprise longtime party supporters who are used to more traditional-looking candidates.
“I think (my hairstyle) has been to my advantage,” said Fujimoto, who is running for a Lower House seat in Tokyo’s No. 24 constituency. “People find me approachable, I guess.”
The JCP candidate said he is getting positive responses, especially from young voters, as he campaigns for the June 25 election.
“High school students applaud me when I speak on the streets. Even the ‘yamanba girls’ (young females with grizzled blond hair and heavily tanned skin or dark makeup) wave at me,” Fujimoto said.
Despite the many positive reactions to his personal appearance, his unconventional style does not please everyone, he admitted.
While some young supporters have suggested that Fujimoto go to even more extremes, such as trying red and blond hair dyes, a number of elderly JCP supporters have advised him that his colored hair is too “worldly” for the Diet.
“I am hoping to break down a common prejudice that lawmakers are wicked and crafty,” Fujimoto said. “People, even teenagers, listen to me, and when they find my policies to be better than they had expected based on my appearance, I have the opportunity to make an even stronger impression.”
Brown, wavy hair is just one example of the approaches used by what appears to be a new generation of politicians.
Satoshi Shima, a Lower House member from the Democratic Party of Japan, uses the Internet.
Shima, 42, recently launched a campaign Web site that features only a blank white screen and his recorded voice message.
He opened the site to protest the current Public Offices Election Law, which does not allow candidates to use Web sites and e-mail messages containing visual images in their campaigns.
The election law strictly regulates the distribution of posters, flyers and any other written documents, whereas phone calls are not covered under the law. It bans the use of the Internet for election campaign purposes because the government defines the Internet as a medium more akin to written documents than to phone calls.
“The law and the government’s interpretation of it are totally outdated,” Shima said. “So I asked the home affairs minister what about i-mode (cellular phone-based Internet) messages. He replied that they cannot be used either, because the messages are visual.”
Subsequently, the computer-savvy Shima came up with the idea of creating an all-white, voice-only Web site with no visual data on it. Soon after the site was launched last month, it drew an average 2,000 hits per day as well as a daily average of 60 e-mail messages cheering Shima on, some originating from as far away as Vienna and the U.S. West Coast, he said.
“The reason (why the ban on the Net remains) is crystal clear — there are people who will be in trouble if young voters become interested in politics and push up the voter turnout,” said Shima, who is running in Aichi’s No. 13 constituency.
When the question of whether to allow the use of the Internet for campaign purposes was discussed earlier this year, many veteran lawmakers — mostly from the Liberal Democratic Party — expressed their opposition and the idea was scrapped.
Some reportedly argued that slandering of rival candidates would flourish on Web sites. Others feared that allowing the use of the new technology would lead to yet another large expense for candidates, as they would have to hire extra staff to update and improve their Web sites.
“Many people know that their arguments are nonsense,” Shima claimed. “I believe a new democracy will begin only when the ban on Internet campaigning is lifted.”
Shima said that in Japan, most of the influential lawmakers are considerably older — many in their 60s and 70s — in sharp contrast with such nations as the United States and Britain, which have many political leaders in their 40s and 50s.
This may change, however, because a number of veteran lawmakers will retire before the June 25 election.
“The coming election will be an unusual one, in that it will witness a generational change among (lawmakers),” said Norihiko Narita, a professor of comparative politics at Surugadai University in Saitama Prefecture.
The LDP has seen 13 of its incumbent politicians aged 70 years or older announce that they will not seek re-election this time around. Among them are former Lower House Speakers Kenzaburo Hara, 93, and Yoshio Sakurauchi, 88, as well as former Vice Lower House Speaker Hyosuke Kujiraoka, 84.
Also on the list of those retiring is former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, 76, who has wielded strong political influence during the more than 10 years since he stepped down as prime minister in 1989. His departure comes more than a year after he was hospitalized for what was described as lower back pains.
The veteran lawmakers’ moves are prompted partly by legislation enacted earlier this year to cut the number of Lower House seats by 20 from the current 500. This will be reflected in the coming election.
In addition, the LDP has introduced an age-limit of 73 for its proportional candidates, although a handful of veteran lawmakers, including Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone are having exceptions made for them.
The LDP had another reason for wanting its elderly members to retire. The party had to forgo fielding its own candidates in some constituencies to avoid competition with its coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party.
But although the average age of Lower House members — 54.8 when the current incumbents were elected in October 1996 — may fall slightly after the election, that does not necessarily mean the Diet will change dramatically.
Political observers point out that the practice of retiring lawmakers supporting younger relatives to “inherit” their constituencies — complete with fundraising and vote-gathering machines — will continue to be prevalent. Currently, such “hereditary lawmakers” account for more than 30 percent of all Diet members.
In Gunma’s No. 5 constituency, Yuko Obuchi, 26, second daughter of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, is seeking to inherit her father’s Lower House seat with the full backing of his local supporters. Takeshita is having his younger brother, Wataru, run in Shimane’s No. 2 constituency, which has been dubbed the “Takeshita Kingdom.”
The main goals of maintaining such so-called political families are to continue to protect the interests of their support groups as well as to preserve their values, said Taichi Ichikawa, president of Hiroshima Shudo University and an expert on the issue.
“It would be all right if they only accounted for a few percent of lawmakers, but if they account for more than 30 percent, it works only negatively,” he said.
Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama, Finance Minister Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Yohei Kono belong to elite political families that have occupied Diet seats for four generations. Their political lines originated in the late 19th century, when Japan’s parliamentary system was established.
Ichikawa said the longtime practice appears to have been given additional impetus by the introduction in 1994 of the single-seat constituency system in the Lower House.
He pointed out that the LDP’s incumbent lawmakers in each constituency now tend to enjoy greater authority and control over campaign funds as well as the selection of their successor.
“Japan’s political parties need to introduce much clearer and fairer ways to select candidates,” Ichikawa said, giving the examples of “an open exam system or primary elections within parties.”