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In Japan, politics is a family affair

india Updated: Sep 18, 2006 12:02 IST
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If Shinzo Abe replaces Junichiro Koizumi this month as Japan's prime minister as expected, it will be a transition from one dynastic third-generation politician to another.

Abe is up against two other candidates—both of them heirs to political dynasties. Not to be outdone the main opposition leader, Ichiro Ozawa, is the son of a former cabinet minister.

Few other wealthy democracies can match the extent to which politics is a family affair in Japan, where fathers pass down fiefdoms to sons who inherit both their constituencies and their ideologies.

A total of 146 of the 480 members of parliament elected in last year's general election came from political families, according to a survey by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The proportion among members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has held power in Japan almost continually since 1955, is even more striking, with 111 out of its 296 lower-house deputies coming from dynasties.

In Japan, "it is difficult to rise up the political ladder without coming from these circles," said Mari Miura, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"To enter politics, you need a team and money to keep a political base. The son of a Japanese politician inherits this automatically from his father's supporters," she said.

Abe, who turns 52 next week, is one of the most visible examples of dynastic politics.

His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a cabinet member during World War II and later a prime minister. His father, Shintaro Abe, was a foreign minister.

Shinzo Abe, who took his father's seat after he died in 1991, paid a pilgrimage to his family's grave last month in western Yamaguchi prefecture and vowed to fulfill his father's legacy.

There are few other examples in major industrialized countries of such political lineages, with the exception of the Bush and Kennedy families in the United States, said Regine Serra, a French expert on Japanese politics.

The political establishment is built "on clan and family traditions which are part of Japanese culture," said Serra, a professor affiliated with France's National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations.

In some countries, being the scion of a political family can be a liability, but "in Japan, heirs are reassuring. The LDP's hegemony depends on this local link," she said.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a challenger to Abe, is the descendant of a celebrated samurai and is related by marriage to a prime minister and the imperial family.

The other contender for the premiership, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, is the son of a minister of education.

Even policies can recur from one generation of a political family to the next.

Koizumi, for instance, risked an election to pursue the break up of Japan's giant post office. His grandfather, Matajiro Koizumi, had tried in vain to privatize the institution too as postal minister before dying in 1951.

Abe has championed revisions of Japan's US-imposed pacifist constitution, echoing his grandfather who as premier had sought a stronger role for the country after its World War II defeat.

"Shinzo Abe and his mentor, Junichiro Koizumi, both inherited the DNA of their grandfathers, including their ideologies," said Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of the political journal Insideline.

One of the few exceptions to dynastic politics was Kakuei Tanaka, the powerful but scandal-tainted prime minister who served from 1972 to 1974. He famously came from a family of farmers.

His descendants, however, stuck with politics. His daughter, Makiko Tanaka, was a foreign minister under Koizumi and her son has flirted with politics too.

Nonetheless, analysts said Japan has started to change.

The system of hereditary seats weakened in 1994 under electoral reforms that introduced proportional representation, Serra said.

Meanwhile political parties, including the LDP under Koizumi, have increasingly sought out high-profile candidates without political connections to pull in voters without strong allegiances.

"If you manage to distinguish yourself, it's now possible to enter the very closed circles of government," Miura said.

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