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Japan’s hunt for new leaders

world Updated: Sep 13, 2011 23:44 IST
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In 1979, one of Japan’s wealthiest visionaries created a training center for aspiring politicians, hoping that a new generation of bold decision-makers could counter the “vanity and mediocrity” of Japanese leadership.

That decades-old plan to nurture reform-minded politicians, launched by then-85-year-old Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, faces its biggest test with the appointment of prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, a member of the institute’s inaugural class. Noda, 54, comes to office at a time when the nation at large condemns its government, led in recent years by men who haven’t lasted long in the top job.

The Matsushita graduate institute trains its students to base their policies on long-term and lofty objectives. But analysts fear that Japan’s present-day political chaos will thwart those ambitions, with Noda forced to referee the power struggles and factional rivalries that make politics here so difficult. Like his predecessors, analysts say, Noda won’t change the system itself.

“Noda will be a test case,” said Katsuhiko Eguchi, a Matsushita assistant who interviewed a young Noda before the institute admitted him. “This will tell us whether the Matsushita mission has a chance.”

In concept, at least, Japan needs an institute that can help guide its best and brightest into politics, a field long dominated by family dynasties.

Japan has had 15 prime ministers in 20 years. Few have managed to sell the public on a vision about how post-bubble Japan should adapt as its population shrinks and workforce declines.

The five prime ministers since 2006 who preceded Noda lasted, on average, 360 days. Four were either the sons or grandsons of former prime ministers.

A poll conducted last month by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, suggests that both major parties have support ratings of less than 25%. That dissatisfaction points to a broader problem, said Gerald Curtis, a political scientist.