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Saturday, Sept. 10, 2005

Family-bred politicians fan out

But younger Hashimoto finds tainted name a liability


Staff writer

KURASHIKI, Okayama Pref. -- Japanese politics is often a family affair, with the offspring of Diet members winning seats originally held by their fathers, and in some cases, grandfathers.

In Sunday's Lower House election, 158 candidates, or 14 percent of all those running, are the offspring of present or former Diet members.

And one of the most prominent family names in politics is that of Hashimoto.

In the Okayama No. 4 constituency, which covers the town of Hayashima and most parts of Kurashiki, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's second son, Gaku, 31, is running on the Liberal Democratic Party ticket for the seat held by his father, who quit the Diet in August due to a financial scandal and poor health.

The Democratic Party of Japan is fielding Michiyoshi Yunoki, 33, a former employee of a bookstore chain, while the Japanese Communist Party is fielding Tsuyoshi Azuma, 29, a member of its local committee.

The former prime minister's retirement ends a career that spanned nearly four decades. Himself the son of a politician, Ryutaro was nevertheless considered a stubborn lone wolf.

In his book "Friends or Rivals," former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost described Hashimoto, who served as finance minister during Armacost's time in Japan, as a prickly individual with a chip on his shoulder, but who had the reputation as a take-charge kind of guy.

Though his son insists entering politics was his call, a Wednesday rally for Gaku in Kurashiki was something of a memorial ceremony for his kin.

Both his father and his uncle, Kochi Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto, were in attendance. About an hour of the 90 minute rally was taken up by speeches by both men and their supporters, who praised the former prime minister.

"The revolution in politics that current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is carrying out today is possible because of the previous work done by former Prime Minister Hashimoto," Hiroshi Kato, an honorary professor at Keio University who has been a staunch supporter of the former prime minister, said during the rally.

Most of the nearly 500 supporters crammed into the junior high school where the rally was held cared little for the financial scandals that have plagued the Hashimoto family.

Ryutaro Hashimoto's retirement came just over a year after he was forced to resign as leader of the largest faction in the LDP after it was reported that he had personally received a 100 million yen check from a dentists' lobby. The money was not listed on the faction's political donation reports, as required by law.

Prosecutors did not indict him because there was no evidence he played a role in hiding the donation, which violates the Political Funds Control Law. Nevertheless, he is expected to testify about the scandal in a faction colleague's trial.

In Kochi Prefecture, Daijiro Hashimoto was forced to step down as governor late last year and called an election when it was revealed his campaign manager had been involved in a questionable loan deal. He ran again and was re-elected.

"People in Okayama know the Hashimoto family has long worked hard in Tokyo on behalf of the prefecture. Voters here are practical, and understand that, in the end, only the Hashimoto family has the political influence in Tokyo to get things done," said Yutaka Hara, a 72-year-old resident here, noting he has always supported the Hashimoto family.

While Gaku's father and uncle have kept a low profile during the campaign, other members of the Hashimoto family and their supporters have spent much time and energy attempting to convince voters that, although young, Gaku has a bright future.

Other second-generation candidates who seem to have similar advantages include Toshiro Ishii, 34, the oldest son of Hajime Ishii, who serves as a vice president of the DPJ, and Yasuhiro Ozato, 46, the son of Sadatoshi Ozato, a former chairman of the LDP's General Council who recently announced his retirement from politics.

With the campaign slogan "Politics for Society's Weak," which is the same one his father used, Gaku Hashimoto said he strongly favors passage of the postal privatization bills.

As a former employee in the information technology industry, many of Gaku's supporters are also hoping he can use his experience and connections to attract high-tech businesses to Okayama.

And Gaku is also attempting to appeal to voters concerned about Japan's falling birthrate, saying that, as a father of three young children, he, for one, is attempting to slow the trend.

"I know how important it is for Japan to enact policies that address the declining number of births. Can those candidates in this election who aren't married and don't have children really speak on the problem of the declining birthrate?" he asked.

The family name and connections appear to have given Gaku an advantage.

About a week before the election, most local media polls were giving him an edge over Yunoki of the DPJ, who ran for the single seat here in the 2003 general election but lost to Ryutaro Hashimoto.

In campaign speeches, Yunoki has attacked Gaku's father over the donation affair and for having his son run in the poll.

Yunoki reportedly said earlier this month that the way the ex-prime minister resigned over the financial misdeed he hid from the public was wrong.

The DPJ candidate also said in his campaign handout that although Hashimoto initially said he had no intention to let relatives run for his constituency, his son is actually running, which could cause public distrust in politics.

And in an election where foreign affairs is playing almost no role, Yunoki has publicly declared that he will work hard to gain Japan a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Hashimoto supporters in Kurashiki are not worried about Gaku's lack of experience in foreign affairs.

"His father has extensive international connections, especially in the Middle East and among oil and gas companies. Those connections will help Gaku make up for any lack of experience in foreign affairs," said Iwao Kashimura, a supporter in Okayama.

However, Gaku's victory is not yet assured.

Ryutaro Hashimoto's influence over the district has been weakening. He won 104,653 votes in the 2003 House of Representatives election, down from more than 150,000 in the 1996 general election.

In local television interviews, many voters continue to say they have not yet made up their minds as for whom they will cast a ballot.

"I'm not sure if I like the idea of yet another Hashimoto in the Diet, especially one from a family that has been involved in so many recent scandals," said Yuko Oguchi, a 50-year-old English teacher.

"But I'm not convinced that any of the other candidates can really make a difference, either. I suppose I'll decide on my way to the election booth Sunday," she said.



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