What is the quickest, most common way to become a politician in Japan? Be born into a political family and have lots of money to spread around.

Simple statistics back this up. About one third of the 353 lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party are either the offspring or grandchildren of former Diet members, and most of them have money and strong support groups.

Yukio Edano, however, policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, was not born into a political family and he got in on the cheap, relatively speaking.

Also, his campaign style is the antithesis of the politics-as-usual approach of building solid vote-gathering machines, when ruling party politicians often spend in excess of 100 million yen on a single campaign.

He relies solely on volunteers, and they work at their own convenience.

“I’ve always spoken by myself,” the 38-year-old lawmaker said during a recent interview, meaning he doesn’t even hire “uguisu” (spring warblers), the young women who accompany a politician on the stump, repeatedly calling out the candidate’s name over a loud speaker.

Edano was first elected to the Lower House in 1993 as a member of the now-defunct Japan New Party, riding on a tidal wave of rising public expectations for the fledgling party headed by Morihiro Hosokawa, who became a coalition prime minister later that year.

In his first campaign, Edano spent only 3.84 million yen, a stunningly paltry sum for a successful bid for a Diet seat.

Edano admits he won that election thanks to the popularity of the JNP, which attracted voters fed up with the money-related scandals embroiling the long-ruling LDP.

But even after he left the JNP in 1994, and after the new party boom receded and voter interest faded, Edano managed to hold on to his seat through the following two general elections.

One explanation for his success can be that Edano carefully chose a relatively small urban electoral constituency, the Saitama No. 5 district, where most residents have few ties with strong interest groups.

Hiranao Honda, Edano’s policy secretary, recalled that some Diet members repeatedly advised him to organize solid, pyramid-type organizations to garner support from voters.

“I am sometimes worried. We don’t know if people will really come until (campaign) day, because they are volunteers,” Honda said.

But volunteers did come and Edano kept winning.

“We just ask them to do what they can, at the time most convenient for them,” he said. “It probably makes it easier for them to come.”

Criticizing politicians who spend vast sums that were amassed through donations by bringing pork-barrel projects to their constituencies, Edano said, “I think the majority of Japanese voters are people who do not want politicians to do such things. So I’m trying to prove it through my election campaigns.

“And I have won so far,” he added.

In that sense, Edano admits, he was lucky to start from scratch, saying that once a candidate secures votes by spending money and bringing in pork-barrel projects, it is extremely difficult to win voters over in other ways.

Of course, Edano’s own achievement as a policymaker is another factor that enables him to capture the hearts of voters.

He was the first Diet lawmaker to draw the HIV-tainted blood product debacle into the public spotlight.

This prompted Naoto Kan, now president of the DPJ, to openly take up the issue when, as a member of New Party Sakigake, he was appointed health minister in 1996 in another coalition Cabinet.

In a dramatic development, Kan then unearthed secret records held by bureaucrats, becoming a national hero in the process.

The DPJ, which has grown into the largest opposition force, was established on Kan’s popularity later that year.

Edano, a qualified lawyer, is also known for having a thorough understanding of policy matters and superb debating skills during Diet deliberations.

He became widely known to the public during the fierce policy battles over the looming financial crisis in 1998.

At that time, Edano and other junior lawmakers from the DPJ and LDP jointly drew up financial reform bills.

“He’s very quick in grasping (key) points. He’s a very clever person,” said Seiji Maehara, a DPJ lawmaker and a longtime friend of Edano.

When speaking on TV, Edano’s logical approach may leave the impression that he is a stern debater, but people close to him say he’s quite different.

“The public’s impression of Edano may be that of a person grilling bureaucrats and cornering them in arguments. But that’s not true. He’s a very mild person,” Honda said, noting Edano rarely gets angry with anyone in the office.

Maehara, who often socializes with Edano and his family, agrees.

“He looks laid-back when he’s with his wife,” said Maehara, describing Edano as easygoing in private life.

Edano is not only on top of policy matters. Some observers say the young DPJ policy chief may also play a key role in deciding the party’s course in the political landscape.

Speaking about a possible merger with the Liberal Party, which is headed by Ichiro Ozawa, an idea currently being mulled by the two parties, Edano, a staunch opponent to such a move, criticized promerger members of the parties for not seeking a basic policy agreement.

“(The merger) is totally unthinkable,” Edano said, predicting that if DPJ executives tried to forcibly merge the party with the Liberal Party, his party would splinter.

“(A merger) would make no sense if 20 people join (the DPJ) while 30 others leave,” he said.

Edano does not rule out an alliance with other opposition parties and the formation of a coalition, including the Liberal Party, if they can share certain key policies.

“If we want to quickly win control of the government, a coalition is a better option than a party merger,” said Edano, who believes a merger would be a much higher hurdle because the DPJ would need to iron out even minor policy differences with Liberal Party members.

Asked about his political goals, Edano said he wants to help bring about a society where people of diversified views can coexist.

“(To achieve this) politicians should not be the ones who decide what kind of society is desirable,” he said. Instead, politics should serve to facilitate social interaction.

As an example, Edano supports legislation to give married couples the freedom to choose whether to have separate surnames.

“Two choices can coexist. I think such a society is a good society,” Edano said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.