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Mettle of ‘thoroughbreds’

What does Prime Minister Taro Aso have in common with his immediate predecessors — Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda? Each is either a son or a grandson of a well-known politician of the past.

And they are not alone. There are a number of lawmakers in the Diet who have “inherited” their posts from their fathers. Although this may give the impression that Japan has long been ruled by political thoroughbreds, there has been a mounting call from citizens to abolish or at least place some restrictions on “hereditary” succession as the Japanese political landscape moves deeper into a state of stagnation.

Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with a son following in the footsteps of his father to become a politician, which is not uncommon even in the United States. There is one fundamental difference, however. Whereas in the U.S. one has to show exceptional qualifications and talent to succeed in politics regardless of parentage, a Japanese politician by and large is surrounded by a group of powerful supporters who shift their support to his or her offspring with a view toward protecting their vested interests gained through him.

At the outset of a meeting between Prime Minister Fukuda with President George W. Bush at the White House in November 2007, Bush tried to break the ice by saying they had one thing in common in that their fathers once headed their respective countries.

The commonality ended there. Bush, despite the bitter broadsides he received from all corners of the world, remained in office and performed his duties for a full eight years, in stark contrast to Fukuda, who gave up his position only a year into his premiership.

When the two got together again at a summit meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Toyako, Hokkaido, last year, Bush could not even remember Fukuda’s name at a press conference, referring to him as the “incumbent prime minister.”

Many in Japan entertain a false notion that there are prominent political “dynasties” such as the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Roosevelts in the U.S. and that, therefore, America is a haven for “second-generation” politicians just like Japan. The fact is, though, that no American, regardless of the pedigree, can pass the screening of primary elections and a party convention unless he or she can prove himself fully qualified to lead the nation.

Case in point is when Hillary Clinton was named secretary of state, vacating her senatorial seat in New York. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy, sought to fill the post. Before Gov. David A. Paterson decided whom to pick, Kennedy stepped down, apparently realizing her lack of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, Al Gore, a son of Sen. Albert Gore Sr., earned his reputation on his own. He studied at Harvard and served in the army, fighting in the Vietnam War. As a politician, he played a leading role in promoting information technology and environmental protection. He was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Many Japanese citizens can only wish they could find a second-generation politician like Gore on their own turf.

The situation in Europe is similar to that in the U.S., and thus poles apart from how things operate in Japan. True there are famous families created by such prominent statesmen of the past as Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire; Richard von Weizsacker, president of Germany; and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, French president. But no member of these families can reach a high political position if he or she lacks national appeal.

In Britain, every political aspirant must go through rigid screening by either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. Those highly rated are assigned to constituencies where their parties are predominant while those who are less promising have to struggle in precincts where their opponents are strong.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Labourite, belonged to the latter category and once had his deposit money confiscated because he garnered so few votes. Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, was also initially assigned to a Labour stronghold, and had to fight for nine years before being finally elected to the House of Commons.

Even though both Blair and Thatcher led their respective parties to a general election victory three times, they were forced to step down when their parties deemed them no longer capable of exercising leadership. Thatcher was 65 and Blair was 54 when that happened.

Of the 12 British prime ministers who have taken office since the end of World War II, none — not even Sir Winston Churchill — “inherited” the constituency from his or her parent.

Circumstances are lamentably different in Japan, where virtually every politician or political aspirant is protected by a group of “supporters.” They consist of those who benefit from their cordial and often “collusive” ties with the elected official and thus serve as the principal machinery to garner votes. When a politician retires, they shift their support to his or her offspring to ensure that their vested interests are protected. This is why the second- or even third- generation politicians in Japan who inherit their positions very seldom possess the high professional standards comparable to those of their American and European counterparts.

During the past two decades since the Emperor acceded to the throne, Japan has had 14 prime ministers, nine of them sons of former Lower House members. During the same period, Britain has had four prime ministers and the U.S. five presidents. No wonder that an incumbent prime minister of Japan has had his name forgotten by his foreign counterpart.

It now appears obvious that the recent deterioration in the quality of Japanese politics and politicians is rooted in this “hereditary” tradition. Many citizens contend that a revival of the Japanese political landscape cannot be hoped for unless this tradition is abolished or restricted. That’s why they are raising their voices for reform.

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