Same Old, Same Old

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As Japan prepares for yet another election, the usual suspects line up for votes, leaving little hope for real change
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo

The novice candidate who began campaigning last week for a seat in parliament's Lower House was no ordinary political hopeful. Despite heavy rains that had turned the area into a muddy swamp, 2,500 people crowded into a former silk factory in Shibukawa, a farming town 120 km north of Tokyo, to hear the 26-year-old woman speak. With that, Yuko Obuchi, daughter of the late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, entered the close-knit world of Japanese politics. When Obuchi pèredied in May after suffering a stroke, his Liberal Democratic Party looked no farther than the family tree to fill the parliamentary vacancy. It was a predictable move. Keizo Obuchi himself had started his political career in 1963 by running for his deceased father's seat. While we were looking after my husband and hoping for his recovery everyday, Chizuko, his widow, told the adoring crowd, we thought it over and over and reached the conclusion that Yuko should run.

The passing of the torch to a third-generation Obuchi shows that Japan's time-honored politics of inheritance is alive and well. In this case, yet another potential opening of the political system will remain instead firmly in the hands of the status quo. The daughter's sudden rise in politics, like those of many other candidates with family ties, helps shed some light on how the ldp-dominated ruling coalition keeps its grip on power even at a time of voter discontent. The diversity of the Diet membership is lost, laments Taichi Ichikawa, president of Hiroshima Shudo University and author of a book on hereditary politics. The familiar clique of candidates contributes to voter indifference, he says, which helps ensure that the Old Guard is re-elected, deepening the cycle of apathy.
Voter disaffection is likely to be evident in the June 25 vote for 480 seats in the Lower House, the more powerful of the Diet's two chambers. The ldp should retain a slim majority, but will still need its coalition partners, the New Komeito and New Conservative parties, to maintain control of the government. The ldp had hoped to exploit Obuchi's death to win a huge sympathy vote, but that strategy now seems likely to succeed in only a few districts. On the other hand, Japan's chronically disorganized opposition parties have failed to convince voters that they would run things differently, squandering the ample ammunition the ruling coalition has given them, like an economy still struggling to recover. One short-term incentive:the election will decide who will host the summit of G-7 nations, plus Russia, in Okinawa next month. Longer term, the vote will determine which direction Japan takes as it tries to climb out of its national malaise: the traditional pump-priming of the ldp or cuts in state spending to keep ballooning public debt in check. The challenge for politicians of all stripes is inspiring disillusioned voters that they should care.

This should be a time of great political change. Rarely has a government been more unpopular. Since Obuchi's death, replacement Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's approval rating has plummeted to a dismal 12%, according to one newspaper poll. Another survey showed that 70% of voters disapprove of the regime. These are stunning numbers: typically, a leader who comes to power after an untimely death is accorded a grace period. In just two months, however, Mori has damaged himself with a series of controversial remarks. He characterized Japan as a divine nation with the Emperor at its center, an unpopular reference to the pre-World War II, imperial era. And he used a similarly jarring militaristic locution while trying to rally support from constituents. The ldp's alliance with the Buddhist-backed New Komeito Party, meanwhile, continues to raise eyebrows. And Mori's stature has been further damaged by the Economic Planning Agency's admission that it omitted a piece of data from its calculation of gdp which, if included as usual, would have further reduced the growth rate and made the government's economic targets for the year more difficult to achieve.

Dissatisfaction has sparked a grass-roots activism rarely seen in Japan. Taking a cue from South Korean citizens' watchdog organizations, six groups in Japan have posted lists of bad politicians on the Internet, to help energize a citizenry fed up with politicians but seemingly incapable of doing anything about them. A new book that rates politicians on their views on substantive issues like financial reform sold 20,000 copies in two weeks. Citizens' groups have demanded, and sponsored, candidate forums in 150 legislative districts; in the last Lower House election in 1996, there was only one such gathering. The lack of information about candidates makes people indifferent, says Zendo Oda, who has published a how-to manual on holding such debates.

Despite hopes among many Japanese for radical change, the power of the ldp remains formidable. Revolutionary leaders have emerged, only to be crushed by the ldp machine. All politics is local, the saying goes, and no one understands that better than the ldp, with its old-fashioned patronage system that routinely doles out pork-barrel projects to reward supporters. The party's vote-collecting machine, known as koenkai, is second to none. Special-interest groups bring in the votes in exchange for pork. The ldp koenkai operate under a pyramid structure, headed by a Diet member and comprising tens of thousands of members. The koenkai promote the politics of inheritance in part because they know it's easier to sell a familiar name to voters than an unknown. In the Lower House that was dissolved prior to this week's election, 30% of the members inherited their seats directly from relatives. A third of the ldp candidates in this election have family political ties. Lawmakers consider their electoral districts their private fiefdoms, says political analyst Hisayuki Miyake. Another commentator, Toichi Suzuki, likens the situation to the Edo period of the 17th to 19th centuries, when shoguns ruled the land. Just like feudal lords, he says, political dynasties have made public jobs inherited positions.

To some extent, of course, politics in every country rewards family connections. This year's U.S. presidential election features the son of a U.S. Senator (Al Gore) against the grandson of a U.S. Senator and son of a President (George W. Bush). But such a match-up is the exception, not the rule, as it is in Japan. This year, the seats of three powerful ldp members are up for grabs, following the deaths of Obuchi and Seiroku Kajiyama as well as the retirement of ailing Noboru Takeshita. Collectively, the three men have held their seats for 110 years. For these three positions to come open at once is a rare opportunity to infuse new blood into Japan's politics.

So who is all but certain to win elections replacing them? Obuchi's daughter Yuko, Kajiyama's son Hiroshi and Takeshita's brother Wataru. So much for new blood.

To be sure, just because somebody uses family ties to climb the political ladder doesn't necessarily mean he is incapable. Some of Japan's most inventive young politicians come from political Families Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara's son Nobuteru, for example, is considered one of the more astute thinkers on financial affairs in the Diet.

As for Yuko Obuchi, she may well turn out, as her boosters suggest, to be a politician with the talent of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Obuchi has no political experience other than serving briefly as her father's private secretary; she was studying English in Oxford when he suffered a stroke. Even though many Japanese say they yearn for a new breed of politician, the reality is that voters in Gunma prefecture are sure to elect her precisely because she is the daughter of a politician who represented the status quo.

At Yuko Obuchi's coming-out party in Shibukawa last week, the politics of inheritance was on full display. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, still a member of parliament, appeared with his son, Hirofumi, a government minister, and urged the crowd to elect the woman he said was destined one day to be Prime Minister. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ichita Yamamoto was also on hand:he inherited his Upper House seat after his father's death five years ago. Men and women in the crowd sniffled and dabbed their eyes with tissue as Obuchi's widow spoke: I can hear Obuchi's loud voice saying from heaven, 'Do your best, Yuko.' Please support and raise young Yuko.

Across town, Obuchi's opponent, Tsuruo Yamaguchi, held his own rally. It's hard to compete with a dynasty. Just 50 people showed up to support Yamaguchi, a former leader of the Socialist Democratic Party who came out of retirement because he didn't think the young Obuchi should waltz into office unopposed. I'm not saying all second- or third-generation political aspirants are bad, but they have to at least have had political careers, Yamaguchi says. Nonsense, counter Obuchi's supporters. Nobody is full-fledged from the beginning, says Mitsuru Matsumoto, owner of a package-design company in Gunma. He can't actually vote for Obuchi; his residence is outside her district. But he is urging his employees to support her. Yuko was born and raised in a politician's home, he says. She watched what her father was doing and she is the most appropriate person to succeed his vision.

Yuko Obuchi didn't spell out her vision at the opening-day rally. I'm a complete stranger to politics, she concedes. But then, nobody could really articulate her father's vision either, and that didn't hurt him. In his day, family ties were more important to voters than political platforms. His daughter will be hoping Japan isn't ready to cut the umbilical cord of its politics of inheritance quite yet.

With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/ Shibukawa and Sachiko Sakamaki and Takashi Yokota/Tokyo