September 21, 2007

Japan. A democratic dinasty

In Japan, long held up as the paragon of a mature Asian democracy, yet which continues to serve up political leaders distinguishable only by subtleties of grey in their ideological coloration. Yasuo Fukuda, the leading candidate to replace Shinzo Abe as Japan's next PM, and Fukuda's rival, Taro Aso, appear to be trying to differentiate themselves as the Sept. 23 Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) election approaches. Also is pegged as a tough-talking hawk, Fukuda a diplomatic dove. But both are products of a political system dominated not by people with the right ideas, but by people with the right names. Second- or third-generation politicians tend to learn the techniques of the family business, without having any strong passions about what they want to do for the country.

Perpetuating the family business doesn't get at the real challenges facing Japan. But rather than combat the country's complex problems — stagnating wages, a widening income gap, a shifting global balance of power — many politicians seem intent on replaying ancient political battles. And it's not just a Bush here or a Kennedy there: roughly one-third of Japan's sitting parliamentarians come from political nobility. Hereditary leadership doesn't just plague the LDP, which has ruled Japan virtually uninterrupted for half a century, but opposition parties as well. Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, is the son of a former Cabinet minister.

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