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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008
Diet 'juniors' and Japan's politics of descent
One of the busiest people on TV right now is Daigo Naito, a 30-year-old who dresses and gesticulates like a rock star while speaking in the tones of a narcotized 16-year-old. Daigo isn't a comedian, though his droning delivery elicits laughs, and he's not really a rock star, though he did start his show biz career with the intention of becoming one. His ubiquity is based on one thing: pedigree.
Daigo is the grandson of late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, and his career as a TV star took off when Takeshita's widow gave him permission to use grandpa's name when selling himself as . . . whatever. For a decade before that, Daigo struggled to make it in the world of visual-kei, a rock subgenre whose musicians dress like manga characters and play sweetened heavy metal. He fronted a group called Jzeil (pronounced "jail") and recorded an album written and produced by superstar Kyosuke Himuro, but nothing came of it. As soon as he revealed that he was the grandson of one of the most notorious "dons" of the Liberal Democratic Party, however, offers for television work poured in.
Progeny of famous people are as common in show business as divorce lawyers, but most "juniors" put in the appearance of having some sort of skill, be it acting, singing or weather reporting. Daigo has only the Takeshita name, which isn't his since his mother, Noboru's daughter, gave it up when she married. His blase-rocker act is meant to be an ironic comment on his respectable lineage, but there's no disrespect involved. Daigo owes his dead grandfather his livelihood.
Daigo could have become a politician, and he may run for office someday after his entertainment career dries up. As with show biz, the sons and daughters of politicians don't need talent or experience to join the "family business," and it's pretty easy. According to a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun, "the starting line for seshu (descendant) candidates is much closer to the finish line than it is for other candidates."
Since seshu candidates have ready-made local support and an existing political machine, their opponents have their work cut out for them. Over decades, the number of seshu politicians has snowballed, which means the government has turned into a club whose members possess the same narrow interests and values, which aren't necessarily shared by average voters. The Asahi says that the Lower House of the Diet is now about 30 percent seshu, while the Sankei Shimbun reports that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is almost 50 percent seshu. Eighty percent of Lower House candidates in 2005 who happened to be the children or grandchildren of national politicians were victorious.
The media has never ignored this tendency, but since the process that makes it possible is democratic in principle, criticism is muted. Besides, seshu politicians are by definition celebrities, which makes it more fun to cover them. The new Aso Cabinet, however, has provoked more than the usual concern since 11 of the 18 ministers, including Aso himself, are seshu politicians. Not only that, the last four prime ministers have been seshu politicians, with the most recent three either sons or grandsons of past prime ministers.
None of Junichiro Koizumi's forebears made it to the top, but he may be the consummate seshu politician. He is the third generation of his family to represent his district in Kanagawa Prefecture, and now his second son, Shinjiro, is being groomed for his seat, since his oldest boy has already gone the Daigo route and become an actor. Koizumi Sr.'s arrogant sense of entitlement even shocks some members of the LDP. Former Nagano governor and professional gadfly Yasuo Tanaka has announced he will run against Shinjiro, since the only person who can beat a junior is a celebrity.
In an interview in the Sankei, political analyst Taichi Sakaiya explained that the LDP's preference for less risky candidates favors seshu politicians, who attain Cabinet posts sooner than nonseshu politicians — and not because they start their careers earlier. The LDP contains competing factions, and it's difficult to satisfy all of them through strategic ministry appointments. No one in the LDP, however, objects when seshu colleagues are appointed before nonseshu colleagues who have been in the Diet longer. There is no "jealousy," says Sakaiya, who believes that Aso appointed so many seshu ministers in order to avoid intraparty strife prior to the next general election.
Juniors are also said to be insulated from everyday reality, which is why that reporter last month asked former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda if he had ever looked at himself objectively. Fukuda, the son of former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, had no idea what the reporter was getting at and uncharacteristically lost his composure. This goes along with Sakaiya's comment that seshu politicians tend to be incautious with comments because they are always surrounded by like-minded people, but the practice of shooting from the hip seems general in the LDP regardless of whether or not dad was a politician.
Nariaki Nakayama, who quit his transport ministry post after only five days due to outrageous remarks he made about Japan's largest teachers union and other things, is not a seshu politician, but his ascendancy in the LDP had much to do with his older wife, Kyoko, an Upper House member who achieved political stardom when she became the government's expert on the North Korean abduction issue. Supposedly, Nakayama believed his wife's favorable reputation gave him license to rail against things he felt strongly about.
Last week the pundits on TBS's "wide show" "Ping Pong" speculated that Kyoko was busy making the rounds of people her husband had offended and apologizing for his remarks, like a mother visiting the neighbors after her little boy misbehaves in public. You don't have to be a junior to be a spoiled brat.