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Celebrity Politicians in an Exclusionary Democracy

Tags: Democracy , Politics , Public Policy , Local Government , Koizumi

Yakushiji, Katsuyuki

October 05, 2016

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The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Building in Shinjuku.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Building in Shinjuku.

Despite a lowering of the voting age, Japanese democracy is not very inclusive, charges Katsuyuki Yakushiji, citing the daunting obstacles facing any first-time candidate lacking either a political pedigree or celebrity status. He calls for European-style reforms to broaden the pool of political talent.

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One of the notable features of July’s House of Councillors election was the relatively large number of “celebrities” running for upper house seats. Newscasters, TV actors, pop singers, comedians, and athletes figured prominently on the list of candidates. Although a precise tabulation is difficult, a good 15 of the 121 winning candidates—more than 10%—could probably be classified as media personalities. Candidates of this ilk have also had a an impact in local elections, including some of the nation’s gubernatorial races.

Of course, there is no fundamental reason a former newscaster, reporter, or other TV personality should not become a politician, provided he or she has the knowledge and experience for the job and is motivated by a sincere desire to change public policy for the better. Former newscaster Yuriko Koike, who was recently elected as Tokyo’s first female governor (defeating another well-known TV journalist, among other candidates), was a member of the Diet for 13 years, serving briefly as minister of defense. Since taking office as governor, she has launched an inquiry into the ballooning costs of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games (already three times the initial estimate) and has vowed to probe the ties between the construction industry and members of the Metropolitan Assembly. She has also announced a controversial decision to postpone relocation of the huge wholesale market in Tsukiji, originally scheduled for November, until the safety of the new site can be verified.

Another recent TV-newscaster-turned-politician who has been in the media spotlight for reversing a predecessor’ policies and taking on vested interests is Kagoshima Governor Satoshi Mitazono. Following his election in July, he asked Kyushu Electric Power that the Sendai Nuclear Power Station, which had restarted operations just one year earlier, be suspended. The utility has thus far rejected the request.

On the other hand, some of those who leverage their celebrity to launch a career in politics seem woefully ignorant of the issues. Okinawan-born pop singer Eriko Imai who won election to the upper house last July has admitted to knowing little about the biggest political issue roiling her home prefecture, namely, the concentration of US military bases there. Despite her lack of experience or knowledge, Imai was among the top vote getters in the nationwide proportional-representation component of the election, in which voters cast their ballot either for a party or for one of the individual candidates on a party list.

Hereditary Titles

Also prominent among Japanese lawmakers are the “hereditary Diet members” who succeed to seats previously held by their parents. During the 1990s, the Liberal Democratic Party came under intense criticism for the large number of second- and third-generation lawmakers in its ranks. Although the percentage has fallen slightly since then, roughly a third of the LDP’s Diet politicians still fall into this category. A few—including Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi—represent dynasties that span four generations. In the July upper house election, 17 of the successful candidates were the scions of political families.

Hereditary and celebrity politicians may seem like two very different breeds, but they share one fundamental asset: name recognition. Candidates whose names or faces are already familiar to voters have an advantage coming out of the starting gate. From the perspective of party strategists bent on securing the maximum number of Diet seats in each national election, such a candidate seems a safer bet than a talented but obscure contender. This trend works to restrict the pool of political talent, resulting in a gradual decline in quality.

Surely the caliber of our politicians would improve if elections provided an opportunity for able and knowledgeable people from diverse backgrounds to compete with one another on the basis of their merit. Unfortunately, the system raises almost insurmountable barriers to such broad-based participation.

Obstacles to Participation

Perhaps the biggest barrier is the virtual impossibility of running for office while holding a regular job in the private sector or the civil service. Civil servants are required by law to resign in order to run in a Diet election. Private-sector employees are not under any such legal obligation, but they are generally expected to resign, and no employer will give them time off to campaign.

Under these circumstances, few citizens of ordinary means can summon up the courage to make a foray into politics. If one were to lose one’s bid after borrowing heavily to run an election campaign, one would find oneself with a mountain of debt and no job to pay it off. And even those who are fortunate enough to win election are confronted with the same risk every few years thereafter. For older individuals with substantial assets, this may be an acceptable risk. But for most younger and middle-aged citizens, who rely on regular employment to support themselves and their families in the years ahead, an unsuccessful run for office could have painful economic and social consequences.

This leaves the field open to second-generation politicians and TV celebrities, who can stand for election with minimal risk, along with a few successful lawyers and other professionals who are in a position to pick up their careers where they left off in the event of defeat.

These de facto constraints on running for office may not be unique to Japan, but neither are they typical of the world’s mature democracies. German law guarantees two months’ political-candidacy leave to any corporate or government employee who runs for national or local office. Moreover, an employee who wins a seat in the local or national assembly may not be dismissed from his or her job as a result. In France, an employee can take time off to run in local or national elections and, if successful, can return to his or her previous post after serving out the term of office. In Italy as well, employees who run for the Chamber of Deputies are permitted to take a leave of absence, and those who win election can remain on leave, receiving their scheduled pay raises when they return to work.

Toward a Full-Fledged Democracy

If Japan were to adopt similar labor laws, ordinary citizens could stand for election without fear of financial ruin in the event that the bid fails. This would open up opportunities for more people to run for office and provide voters with a wider range of choices. It would also make it easier for people to retire from political life and return to their former jobs if they felt they had achieved their goals in the political arena—instead of clinging desperately to office as the only career option open to them. That would encourage a healthier turnover in a political culture that heavily favors incumbents.

This is not an entirely novel idea. Policymakers here have considered measures that would make it easier for corporate and government employees to run for office, but the proposals have languished in the face of vigorous opposition from the LDP. Incumbents resist any change that might dim their chances for reelection, and the party leadership worries that the entry of white- and blue-collar candidates would benefit parties that have the backing of organized labor. In short, those with a vested interest in the status quo are blocking reform. One result is that older politicians predominate in the Diet and in local assemblies as well.

Japan recently lowered the voting age from 20 to 18, and communities are taking steps to boost voter turnout, especially among the young, who are less and less apt to participate in in the political process. Such measures are laudable, but they focus exclusively on the conduct of voters and neglect the needs of those seeking office. Higher voter turnout among the young will not alter the fact that a huge segment of the Japanese population is effectively being kept out of politics by the requirement that one quit one’s job before running for office. Until we address this flaw, we cannot consider our system a full-fledged democracy.

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