Last Monday, TBS’s noontime show “Hiruobi” was covering Kim Jong Un, the son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and presumed successor. One commentator on the show, an editor for an entertainment magazine, wondered what the citizens of North Korea really thought of this dynastic system. “In Japan right now, seshu is really unpopular.”
It’s difficult to tell if he was being naive or facetious. The Japanese public’s disgust with seshu — positions inherited by offspring — is based on the fact that the last two prime ministers, both seshu politicians, resigned abruptly. The current prime minister, Taro Aso, is another “junior” (or, more precisely, “grand-junior”), which is why he is loathe to quit, even though everybody, including many people in his own party, wishes he would.
Nevertheless, what is going on in North Korea now has parallels in Japanese history. After Japan was forced to open up to the world in the 19th century, its leaders grew nervous when they saw how the West was exploiting Asia, particularly China. They created the emperor system as a means of establishing Japan’s legitimacy as a power to be reckoned with by constructing a myth of an unbroken 2,500-year bloodline.
Asahi Shimbun, however, sees a closer analogy to the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). The newspaper recently pointed out that the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, chose as his heir not his first or his second son, but rather his third, Hidetada, since he felt Hidetada would be easier to control while Ieyasu was still alive. Kim Jong Un is Kim Jong Il’s third son, too. When North Koreans were told about the recent missile launches, it was Kim Jong Un who pushed the button. Last week, Asahi reported that he visited China, just as Kim Jong Il did in 1983 after his own father, Kim Il Jung, chose him. North Koreans are already learning to sing a new song about the “young general.”
Dynasties may imply stability, but they fly in the face of democratic principles. However, since politicians are elected by the people, who’s to say seshu is undemocratic? If the people want to vote for the son of a politician, that’s their prerogative. The real problem is fairness. Because he has to be elected, the son of a politician can’t literally “inherit” his father’s constituency, but he can inherit his father’s support group and campaign funds. According to a recent article in Aera, some people believe that such resources should be taxed, as is private property or company stock when it is inherited.
Many people were up in arms last year when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced he would not seek re-election to his Yokosuka district Diet seat but would instead support his son, Shinjiro, for it in the next general election. Basically, Koizumi was anointing Shinjiro as his successor, as if the constituency was his to pass on. And, as Aera pointed out, the strategy for making sure Koizumi Junior gets the seat is strikingly similar to the one currently being carried out in North Korea. Even if Shinjiro is Koizumi’s second son and not his third, he’s 28 years old, the same age as Jong Un and Hidetada when they were picked for their jobs.
Aera characterizes the Shinjiro strategy as a “stealth campaign.” Whenever media contact his political office in Yokosuka, they are told that Shinjiro does not give interviews. Any subsequent questions, such as “Why not?”, are invariably met with “no comment.”
Obviously, Shinjiro’s support group — which is, for all intents and purposes, his father’s support group — does not want to give the media a chance to report his candidacy in the light of antiseshu sentiment. As long as Shinjiro restricts campaign activities to core supporters in his father’s constituency, it’s believed he has the election sewn up. Consequently, all he does is meet with these core groups and local business leaders, who are expected to spread the word to others in the district. Jong Un, it hardly needs to be pointed out, is also not exposed to media, either inside North Korea or outside.
Also like Jong Un, Shinjiro has been made the subject of a narrative that, while hardly epic, is certainly inflated. Campaign literature makes a big deal of the fact that, although his parents divorced when he was very young, he did not become a furyo (juvenile delinquent), but instead delivered newspapers. His modest accomplishments as a high school baseball player are pumped up with testimonies to his team spirit, and while his education at an obscure university is downplayed, his graduate studies at Columbia University are trumpeted, as is his brief stint at a minor U.S. think tank. His main political experience is working as his father’s secretary, though during Koizumi senior’s last election campaign he mainly “sorted the trash,” according to one Koizumi staffer.
Shinjiro’s Democratic Party of Japan opponent is Katsuhito Yokokume, a 27-year-old University of Tokyo graduate and lawyer whose own back story needs no window dressing: His father was a truck driver and he worked his way through college. That’s as far from seshu as you can get. The only thing about Yokokume that could be better is his clunky campaign slogan. (“Yes, we do!”)
But that doesn’t mean he’ll beat Shinjiro. As long as dad’s machine is behind him, Shinjiro’s got a huge advantage, and in the very unlikely event that the LDP implements its own antiseshu party rules in response to the DPJ’s, he can always run as an independent, which, given the public’s low opinion of the LDP, may be the wiser choice anyway.
And he doesn’t have to worry about nuisances like issues or policies. He probably won’t agree to a debate with Yokokume. According to Aera, he won’t even meet him. At a recent community festival in Yokosuka, the DPJ candidate endeavored to shake hands with Shinjiro, but the younger Koizumi had already left. Yokokume said, “I envy his notoriety.”