Hereditary politics is a common feature of most democracies, and not necessarily a bad one. As some scholars argue, it can have positive spillovers into parliamentary workflow, raise efficiency, and create institutional cohesiveness among members of legislatures. Conversely, it can also be argued that hereditary politics creates negative externalities, spurs corruption, lowers mobility, and creates parliamentary inertia. The debate is open and, to some extent, both the advocates and opponents of “family politics” are right in their own arguments. However, what happens when nepotism becomes the prominent feature of a country’s political system?
The answer can be found in Japan, where approximately 30 percent of the members of the House of Representatives are nisei (second-generation Diet members) and 40 percent of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) diet members are nisei. Among the 30 post-war prime ministers, only three PMs had no politicians among their family members, while most of the others were children or grandchildren of former PMs and ministers. The number of nisei in the House of Congress increased until the 1980s to then stabilize around 25 percent. This figure, however, is not entirely representative of hereditary politics because it does not take into account diet members with relatives that have political roles outside the House of Representatives.
Japan is not a unique case among democracies worldwide. Similar percentages of nisei can be found in Ireland, while countries like the United States and India have well-known “political families” where multiple generations have served as presidents or prime ministers. However, Japan is an interesting case study because it has created a vicious circle where, generation after generation, hereditary politics has been reinforced, institutionalized, and legitimized. This circle creates distortions and paradoxes within the democratic process. However, one can also be counter that hereditary politics persists thanks to democracy. Indeed, second and third generation politicians exist simply because citizens like them and consequently vote for them. In other words, nisei are a byproduct of democracy.
But is democracy now becoming a byproduct of hereditary politics? To answer this question, one has to consider how much power and influence political families have acquired over the years. In Japanese politics, power is an aggregate variable of the “three-bans”: jiban (support base), kanban (name recognition), and kaban (financial support). These three political resources are essential for winning elections and each can be inherited by second-generation legislators.
The first, jiban, is fostered through koenkai (support organizations), which are personal political machines that bind supporters together and connect the local district population to legislators. In exchange for the mobilization of resources and voters, politicians need to be responsive toward their koenkai and try to provide economic incentives to their districts. Since support organizations do not serve parties, but individual politicians, they can easily be transmitted to another family member. Meanwhile, koenkai want to preserve their valuable direct link to the Diet seat, and therefore they are willing to support hereditary candidates who will benefit their interests.
The second ban, kanban, is particularly effective when nisei are running in urban districts, where usually voters are not tied to koenkai but instead vote based on political programs and image. Children and grandchildren of popular politicians tend to be trusted and enjoy a sense of familiarity from their voters. Shinjiro Koizumi, who won his father’s former seat representing the Kanagawa 11th district, is a clear example of the relevancy of family name. During his first electoral race in 2009 he was able to gain widespread support and mobilize volunteers as electoral staff without the need of pre-existing support organizations.
The third ban, kaban, is quite self-explanatory. Nisei have access to family finances and to personal connections with business leaders. After the implementation of the new electoral system, money can even make up for the marginal loss of relevancy of koenkai.
With a victory rate of 80 percent, second generation candidates seems to be part of a privileged political elite that is likely to continue into third, fourth, and even fifth generations, if not more. Not only do nisei have advantages in entering the House of Representatives, but they also have proved to be favored for winning elections multiple times and surviving the LDP’s factional politics. Since one of the main criteria in the LDP for being appointed minister or prime minister is winning multiple elections, nisei are also likely to have an easier time climbing the ladder into government.
As it can be inferred, hereditary politics has become a structural feature of Japanese democracy. Should Japanese citizens worry about it? Not yet, as so far scholars have not been able to prove a correlation between hereditary politics and bad politics. After all, corruption, embezzlement, and bad policies are not unique to nisei, but rather a choice for all politicians.
Cesare M. Scartozzi is editor-in-chief for the academic journal Global Politics Review and directs the Association for Social Sciences, Research and Innovation.