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Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Japanese politics: A family affair
Prime Minister Mori talks to women with babies
Japan's politicians are keen on families
By Japan affairs specialist David Powers

Even before a single vote is cast in Japan's general election, there's one result virtually everyone is agreed on.

The winner by a landslide in Gunma No 5 District will be a 26-year-old who was studying in London until she was suddenly called back to the bedside of her dangerously ill father in April.

So strong are her chances, the main opposition party has not even bothered to put up anyone to challenge her.
Yuko Obuchi
Yuko Obuchi: Following in father's footsteps

She is, of course, Yuko Obuchi, daughter of the prime minister who died last month.

Election day would have been her father's 63rd birthday, and the local party organisation begged her to step into her father's shoes, even though she has no political experience whatsoever.

Few people doubt that virtually everyone in this mainly rural constituency will vote to continue the family line in parliament.

Dynasties

Yuko is the same age as her father Keizo Obuchi was when he inherited the seat after his own father died.

Family dynasties are nothing unusual in politics, even in countries that have a long democratic tradition - take the Kennedys in the US, for instance, or the Churchills in Britain.
Obuchi shrine in funeral hall
Mr Obuchi died from a stroke in

What's unusual about Japan is that so many seats in parliament are passed on from father to son, and occasionally daughter.

Nearly one in four seats in the outgoing parliament - 122 in all - were held by second or third generation members of the family that has continuously represented the same constituency.

It's a trend that's set to continue, with even more family dynasties standing this time, some hoping to regain seats that have slipped out of their grasp.

Open doors

Not surprisingly, it draws criticism from both inside and outside Japan that the country is not truly democratic, but carrying on feudal traditions of the past.
Parliament building
Parliament: A quarter of MPs are from political families

That criticism is somewhat weakened by the fact that such 'hereditary' seats are held by politicians from most parties - not just the conservative LDP that's held the reins of power almost continuously for most of the past half century.

Inheriting a seat also has a positive bonus in that it brings a ready-made network of political contacts.

Even though she's a newcomer to politics, Yuko Obuchi will find doors open so much more easily for her; and she will be able to get things done for her constituents.

Corruption

The other side of the coin is that 'hereditary' seats sap the political process of openness and dynamism.

People get into parliament thanks to who they are, not because of their ideas.

Their existence owes much to the old electoral system, under which each constituency returned as many as five or six members to parliament.

That meant big parties, like the LDP, could get several candidates elected in each constituency, as long as they fought each other on the basis of personality, not policies.

The system was blamed for the string of massive corruption scandals that plagued Japanese politics in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.

It has now been replaced by a combination of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, but old habits die hard.

Shifting loyalties

Reformers wanted Japanese politics to become more like Britain or America, where the two main parties fight elections by offering a choice of policies.

Instead, neither the LDP nor its main opponents have found enough differences between them to offer the voters - except in the personalities of individual candidates.

So elections are fought just as they always used to be.

Not that voting for a particular party always has much meaning in Japan's current political turmoil, anyway.

During the last parliament, 165 politicians changed party affiliation - and 27 of them belonged to four different parties during the period, one for each year of the parliamentary session.

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See also:

23 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Obuchi's daughter to run in elections
21 Jun 00 | Business
Japan's economic muddle
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan's LDP faces poll test
21 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Shinto factor in Japanese elections
02 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan heads for snap election
14 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Obituary: Keizo Obuchi
05 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Yoshiro Mori
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