Japanís Political Dynasties Come Under Fire but Prove Resilient
By MARTIN FACKLER
ó By almost any measure, Katsuhito Yokokume should have at least a fighting chance in the coming parliamentary elections, which could decide Japanís future.
A truck driverís son who graduated from the nationís top university, Mr. Yokokume, an energetic 27-year-old lawyer, is a candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party
, which has ridden rising popular discontent with the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party
. Yet, on a recent chilly morning of greeting voters with deep bows and handshakes at a train station, he got the same apologetic but blunt rejection he gets every day.
ďIím sorry, but this is Koizumi country,Ē one commuter explained.
He was referring to Junichiro Koizumi
, the popular former prime minister whose family has represented this naval port an hour southwest of Tokyo for three generations. In announcing his retirement last autumn, Mr. Koizumi anointed his son, Shinjiro, as successor ó making the sonís election as a fourth-generation lawmaker all but a foregone conclusion here.
Such family dynasties are common across Japan, the product of more than a half-century of Liberal Democratic Party control that allowed lawmakers to build powerful local political machines and then hand them down to children and grandchildren.
Now, as the party faces its biggest challenge since its founding in 1955, such de facto hereditary control of parliamentary seats is coming under unprecedented criticism here. But it is also showing stubborn resilience.
Such inherited seats have fallen under increasing attack by voters and many political scientists. They say the practice has helped create an inbred version of politics that has contributed to the leadership paralysis gripping this nation, slowing its response to the current financial crisis and Japanís longer economic decline. Political analysts have also thrust into public view the fact that powerful political and business families exert more control here than this proudly middle-class society likes to admit.
This has fed a fear of rising social inequalities, and the feeling that unseen barriers are preventing new talent, new ideas óliterally, new blood ó from entering politics, and from helping Japan find a way out of its morass.
ďIt takes a blood test to get elected these days,Ē said Sota Kato, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation
, a private research organization. ďIt is a symptom of how Japanese society has lost its postwar dynamism and become more rigid and less democratic.Ē
While second-generation lawmakers are common elsewhere ó they make up some 5 percent of the United States Congress, Mr. Kato and others said ó they are unusually numerous here. Some 40 percent of Liberal Democratic lawmakers are descendants of lawmakers. Of the past seven prime ministers here, all but one were the sons or grandsons of former lawmakers.
The issue was thrust into public view recently by the back-to-back resignations of two prime ministers, Shinzo Abe
and Yasuo Fukuda
, the grandson and son, respectively, of former prime ministers. The fact that both men stepped down so quickly in the face of falling approval ratings was widely criticized here as a weakness of character seen in ďbotchanĒ or ďbratĒ politicians.
Despite such public disgust, it is unclear whether this will influence the coming elections, which must be called by early September and which polls show the Liberal Democrats could lose. The opposition Democrats, for one, also have their share of second-generation or higher lawmakers: 20 percent.
Also, as Yokosuka shows, old practices die hard. Often, the familiesí founding members are still revered in their districts for bringing public works projects that helped raise living standards.
ďSure, weíre tired of all these brats,Ē said Keiko Nomura, 53, who owns a shoe shop in Yokosuka. ďBut Japan still has money, and Japanese basically hate change.Ē
Mr. Koizumiís decision to hand his seat to his son was greeted with disappointment in urban areas, where the criticism of hereditary seats is highest, and where the former prime minister was widely popular for his vows to change the Liberal Democratic Partyís entrenched ways.
The younger Mr. Koizumi has kept a low profile since his anointment, and both Koizumis declined to be interviewed.
Despite the fact that Shinjiro Koizumi has yet to announce a political platform, his fatherís supporters say they are enthusiastic to vote for him. They say he inherited his fatherís telegenic charisma. Perhaps more significantly, he will also inherit his fatherís roughly 5,000-member support group, which financed and organized his election campaigns.
ďKids are usually stupid by the third generation, but this oneís different,Ē said Kazuhiko Ozawa, a former chairman of Yokosukaís Chamber of Commerce who helped lead the elder Mr. Koizumiís support group.
By contrast, Mr. Yokokume, his opponent, runs his quixotic campaign out of a grimy one-room apartment, which he shares with two election staff members sent by the Democratic Party. He said his budget was $20,000 to $30,000, a full two digits less than what the Koizumi campaign is likely to muster.
Mr. Yokokume said he was hoping to benefit from some kind of negative reaction to hereditary politics. Still, he is reluctant to criticize his opponent directly for fear of offending Japanese sensibilities that frown on self-promoters. Instead, he limits himself to giving his personal narrative of being a self-made success, noting that he was a law major at the prestigious University of Tokyo who passed Japanís highly competitive bar exam.
ďI leave it to voters to make the comparisonĒ with the younger Mr. Koizumi, who graduated from the less well known Kanto Gakuin University, he said. Mr. Koizumi also has a masterís degree in politics from Columbia University
But Mr. Yokokume admits that it is hard to battle an opponent who seems invincible, and whom Mr. Yokokume said he had never even seen. What keeps him going, he said, is a hope of parlaying even a defeat into an eventual career in politics, and a touch of indignation at hereditary politics.
ďWhy canít a regular person be a politician?Ē he asked. ďPolitics shouldnít be a family business.Ē