To the district born
Political families are on the rise
THERE is a saying in Japan that a monkey that falls from a tree is still a monkey, but a member of parliament who falls is a nobody. Apart from some opportunities in a tiny lobbying industry, there are few prospects for cast-aside politicians. So an approaching snap election on December 14th is sparking anxiety in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—except, that is, among a swelling class of politicians who owe their positions in no small part to family connections.
Botchan, or well-born “brats”, are prevalent in Japanese politics. More than two-fifths of LDP legislators are occupying safe seats in the Diet, Japan's parliament, that were once held by fathers, grandfathers, uncles or in-laws. The total number in both houses of the Diet across all parties is climbing again, after a recent sharp fall in the lower house. They have to compete for their relatives' seats, but they are normally a shoo-in. Eight out of 19 members of the cabinet have relatives who were in the Diet or in local politics.
There are numerous advantages in taking up a family member's position: a ready-formed electoral machine of koenkai, or local supporters, and immediate name-recognition which makes it easier to win elections. If a hereditary politician is unfortunate enough to lose office, the family's clout in the constituency can secure a job in a local business to tide them over.
The threat of ejection every few years holds little appeal for outsiders. It is one reason why the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), with fewer dynasties, is struggling to find enough candidates to stand in the coming election. Many Japanese had hoped that the DPJ, when it was in power in 2009-12, would ban politicians from taking over from relatives in local party branches. But it did nothing (and its first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, was a particularly hapless hereditary type). Now the public appears to regard the habit as a lost cause.
There are still some critics, however, including among the many LDP legislators who had to claw their way up. Yuko Obuchi, a politician who took over her seat aged 26 from her father, Keizo Obuchi, a former prime minister, resigned from the cabinet in October after a storm of criticism over infractions of political-funding rules by members of her office. But the “princess”, as she is often known, is still likely to win a sixth term next month.
Are the botchan bad for Japan? Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, has inherited the eagerness of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister soon after the second world war, to revise the country's American-written constitution that renounces the use of war. Many regard Mr Abe's focus on this as a political weakness. Apart from being trapped by family preoccupations, hereditary politicians have difficulty challenging the interest groups that chose them.
Yuji Tsushima, a retired LDP politician whose son, Juji Tsushima, is the fifth generation of MP in his family, attributes his family's influence to a decision after 1946 by his wife's uncle, the governor of Aomori prefecture, to hand over land to grateful farm labourers. But he sees flaws in the system. Having too many hereditary politicians, he admits, “is not good”.