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Japan’s Politics Is Flooded With ‘Nepo Babies’

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Japan’s Politics Is Flooded With ‘Nepo Babies’

Japan has an unusually high percentage of lawmakers who come from political dynasties – and it shows.

Japan’s Politics Is Flooded With ‘Nepo Babies’
Credit: Depositphotos

Contemporary Japanese politics is filled with “nepo babies,” and some of them have drawn a lot of criticism lately by showing a lack of concern for ordinary people’s sense of decency.

The most recent incident involved the family of Kishi Nobuo, a former defense minister. On February 3, Kishi, aged 63, resigned as a House of Representatives member over health issues and also stepped down from his post as a special adviser to Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on national security.

Less than a week later, Kishi’s son, Kishi Nobuchiyo, 31, announced his candidacy for the April 23 lower house by-election to fill his father’s seat in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture.

The younger Kishi initially posted a family tree side-by-side with his profile on his election campaign website’s main page. The chart demonstrated his relationships to seven politicians, including three prime ministers, namely Nobuchiyo’s great-grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke; Nobusuke’s younger brother, Sato Eisaku; and the slain Abe Shinzo, Nobuchiyo’s uncle.

Nobuchiyo was fiercely criticized for flaunting his family pedigree in his electoral race. The family tree has since been taken down, and his website is no longer accessible.

In November 2020, Nobuchiyo became an aide to his father, who was defense minister at the time.

In addition, Kishida Shotaro, 32, eldest son of current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, had raised controversy for going sightseeing and shopping for souvenirs using an official car during official trips to France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in mid-January. Shotaro was accompanying his father, for whom he works as official secretary.

The premier was criticized in the Diet by the opposition bloc for his son’s behavior. Kishida Fumio defended his son, saying Shotaro bought souvenirs for members of the cabinet as part of his “official duties” as secretary.

In another recent controversy, Ishihara Hirotaka, a son of former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, used his question time in the Diet to commemorate the first anniversary of his father’s death on February 1 – which resulted in opposition parties being forced to reduce their question time.

In many ways, these political princelings seem to lack a sense of ordinary people. And this represents that Japanese politics lacks diversity and dynamism, being filled with “nepo babies.”

“The problem with hereditary politicians is that the single-seat constituency system of third, fourth, and fifth generations becomes reserved seats for politicians’ families, and reigns over the electoral districts for more than 100 years,” Hosaka Nobuto, the current mayor of Setagaya Ward in Tokyo and a former member of the House of Representatives, tweeted in October 2022.

“Is it appropriate for democracy to have ‘eternal power’ like the feudal lords of the Edo period?” he asked.

Indeed, seven of the nine Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers since 1993 – Hashimoto Ryutaro, Obuchi Keizo, Koizumi Junichiro, Abe Shinzo, Fukuda Yasuo, Aso Taro, and Kishida Fumio – are all hereditary politicians. Mori Yoshiro and Suga Yoshihide had been the only prime ministers not to come from political dynasties.

Like Abe and Kishida, many hereditary lawmakers in Japan got their political starts working for their grandfathers and fathers. Many of them worked for general companies for only a few years after graduating from university. Then they began to work as secretaries to their fathers, and succeeded their fathers when they retired or died – just like Kishi Nobuo’s son is attempting to do.

In the case of Abe, who grew up in a prestigious political family, he worked for Kobe Steel for just three years after graduating from Seikei University in Tokyo and became the secretary of his father, Shintaro, who was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1982.

Because of this small political cycle, Japan’s “nepo babies” don’t seem to know much about the world outside of politics. They lack common sense because they have so little actual experience in general society.

For example, in 2008, asked about the price of a common type of noodle by an opposition member in the Diet, then-Prime Minister Aso mentioned an exorbitant price, saying “I didn’t buy it recently.”

What happens as a result of this hereditary system? Second- or third- (or longer) generation politicians find it difficult to understand that ordinary people, especially the poor, are struggling to make ends meet every year due to inflation or increases in consumption tax and social insurance premiums. The elite politicians, insulated by their wealth and prestige, can’t feel it. If you haven’t had the experience of commuting on a crowded train in Tokyo, you don’t know how painful it is.

According to a paper written by Doshisha University Professor Iida Takeshi and other scholars, hereditary lawmakers made up about 3 percent of all Diet members in 1960. But now, one in three of the 713 lawmakers in the Japanese Diet come from political dynasties.

That makes Japan a rare case. In most countries, the ratio of hereditary lawmakers is less than 10 percent. For example, the ratio of hereditary representatives in both houses of U.S. Congress is said to be about 5 percent.

Generally speaking, in the course of fighting a tough election campaign, successful candidates are likely to be polished as people and cultivate political insight and a sense of mission. This process of struggle is essential to forging capable politicians. Japan needs many more lawmakers who were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth.