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POLITICS > Elections

Family business? Newcomers face hurdles in Japan’s election

  • October 19, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 2:50 p.m.
  • English Press



TOKYO — Campaigning officially kicked off on Tuesday ahead of Japan’s lower house election on Oct. 31. Although the race will feature the perennial calls for reform, an examination of the data on the candidates so far shows there are still significant barriers to entry for newcomers to politics in the nation.


Out of the 8,803 candidates who have run in the country’s eight lower house elections since 1996, only about 20% of first-time candidates were elected, including those chosen by proportional representation. Nikkei has examined the data on these elections to determine why the odds favor incumbents so strongly.


In Japanese politics, candidates are said to have an edge if they possess three “bans”: jiban (that is, a political machine, such as an association of supporters or an advocacy group); kanban (a well-known family name); and kaban (a war chest). “Hereditary candidates” typically inherit these three key assets from their fathers or other older family members.


A quarter of a century has passed since the lower house election of October 1996, when Japan introduced an electoral system that combines single-seat constituencies with seats chosen by proportional representation.

Nikkei, working with Fujitsu’s data science team, looked data from past elections to assess the power of these hereditary advantages. It created a database of all constituencies and candidates in lower house elections since 1996, using information gathered by reporters and data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to analyze electoral results.


To examine the relationship between the strength of political machines and election outcomes, candidates were classified as “hereditary,” or those whose parents or other close relatives were diet Diet members, and “nonhereditary” members. Hereditary candidates were defined as those who had either parents as Diet members or who inherited some or all of the jiban from a Diet member related by blood or marriage.


Hereditary candidates accounted for 13% of all those who ran in the elections studied. They had an election rate of 80%, including those who lost in single-seat constituencies but were elected by proportional representation. Nonhereditary candidates did far less well, winning 30% of the time.


Of hereditary candidates, 70% ran for the Liberal Democratic Party. They tended to perform well even in unfavorable electoral environments. In the 2009 lower house election, for example, the LDP suffered a heavy defeat, which led to a change in power due to an election for the first time in Japan’s history: The election rate for all LDP candidates came to 38% that year. But 52% of hereditary candidates were elected, reflecting the strength of their generations-old jiban.


Fumio Kishida, who became prime minister on Oct. 4, is a hereditary lawmaker, according to Nikkei’s definition. His father, Fumitake, was a repeatedly elected to the lower house; the junior Kishida ran for the House of Representatives for the first time from the father’s constituency in 1993, at age 35. By contrast, Yoshihide Suga, Kishida’s predecessor, is a nonhereditary legislator who built his own jiban as a member of the Yokohama City Assembly and other political experiences.


As for kanban, legislators can increase their name recognition by remaining in office for a long time and assuming key government and party posts. One important question is how many electoral victories lawmakers need to increase their chances of reelection. While first-time candidates’ election percentage was 14%, the rate rose to more than 60% for candidates with two election wins and topped 80% for those with five or more previous victories.


Many hereditary candidates had kanban, even as first-time candidates. The winning percentage was 60% for hereditary first-time candidates, while nonhereditary neophytes won only around 10% of the time.


Even nonhereditary legislators can enhance their name recognition and solidify their power base by repeatedly returning to the Diet. The winning percentage topped 80% for nonhereditary candidates elected six times, nearly eliminating the gap with hereditary lawmakers. In other words, nonhereditary legislators have to win reelection many times to have the same electoral chances as hereditary lawmakers.


Kaban, or funds are also important to winning a parliamentary seat. Although a legal cap on campaign expenditures aims to prevent financial muscle alone from determining election results, differences remain in candidates’ campaign spending depending on their ability to raise funds.


Based on data from the internal affairs ministry, candidates were divided into six groups according to expenditures per voter in a constituency, in increments of 10 yen ($0.08). Those who spent 9 yen or less per voter won only 4% of the time. The election rate rose to 35% for those spending 10-19 yen; 57% for those spending 20-29 yen; and 62% for those who lavished 30-39 yen per voter on their campaigns.


Opening campaign offices and printing fliers is expensive. Although the costs are partly financed by taxpayers, analysis of the ministry data suggests that candidates with large war chests are in a favorable position. Without strong financial support, a candidate cannot easily win.


Hereditary politics is a phenomenon that can also be seen in other democratic countries such as the U.S. or India, and some argue it is not necessarily a bad thing. In Japan, however, the data show that as generations of hereditary succession repeat, they have become a strong part of the nation’s elections.


Although there are advantages to having politicians who cut their teeth in elective office from a young age and are well versed in policy and parliamentary procedure, politics will not change without a dynamic political environment that enables people from many walks of life to enter the public arena.

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