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Japan’s new prime minister is a third-generation politician. That’s more common than you might think.

Why dynasties dominate the leadership in Japan, and around the world.

- October 5, 2021

In October 2021, Japan’s House of Representatives elected Fumio Kishida as the country’s 100th prime minister. Kishida has pledged a “regenerated” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for all but four years since 1955.

One of the ironies of Japanese politics, however, is that “generational change” in the LDP often means the sons, grandsons and other relatives of outgoing politicians step in to replace them. Kishida is a prime example — his father and grandfather were also lawmakers.

Why do dynasties like the Kishida family dominate political leadership in Japan?

Politics is often a family affair

Kishida’s ascension to the premiership follows his victory in the LDP’s presidential contest on Sept. 29, when he captured the support of the party’s old guard to defeat vaccine minister Taro Kono in a runoff vote.

He now has just weeks to settle into the role before Japan holds a general election, probably on Oct. 31. The election will be a big test for Kishida’s leadership, as the LDP was hemorrhaging support this summer due to its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

After last week’s party vote, Kishida told fellow LDP members, “We have to show the general public that the LDP has been reborn.” His picks for executive posts in the party and cabinet are one signal of generational turnover, with octogenarians like former finance minister Taro Aso (81) and former secretary general Toshihiro Nikai (82) stepping down after serving years in their posts. Among Kishida’s 20 Cabinet appointees, 13 (65 percent) are first-time ministers.

But many of the new faces have familiar names. New Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki, for example, is the son of former prime minister Zenko Suzuki, and takes over the post from his brother-in-law. Including Kishida, nine of the new cabinet ministers are related to national-level politicians, and three others have relatives in local politics or who followed them into office. In other words, for 57 percent of the cabinet, politics is a family affair.

This is hardly a new pattern in LDP cabinets. While about a third of LDP lawmakers in recent years has been dynastic, these lawmakers have accounted for as much as 60 percent of all ministers. And since Kiichi Miyazawa (1991­ – 1993), all but two of the LDP’s 12 presidents have belonged to political dynasties. The exceptions are Yoshiro Mori (who nevertheless had family in local politics) and Kishida’s immediate predecessor, Yoshihide Suga.

A handful of families have considerable power

We often think of dynastic succession as a feature of authoritarian regimes and personalized dictatorships. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Mahamat Déby of Chad are just a few examples. But in a democracy like Japan, it is more surprising to find such a concentration of power within a small number of families.

Scholars attribute the abundance of dynasties within the LDP to the multimember district electoral rules used for the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1993. For the LDP to win a majority of seats, it needed to nominate multiple candidates in each district, thereby creating intraparty competition and “hyper-personalistic” campaigns. In this context, party leaders involved in recruiting candidates sought the name recognition and inherited resources of dynastic candidates.

In 1994, Japan adopted a new system based largely on single-member districts — similar to the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. This system eliminated intraparty competition and strengthened parties, reducing the importance of name recognition. As a result, the prevalence of dynasties in the LDP has declined —— from roughly half of new candidates in the early 1990s, to about 10 percent in recent years, similar to the rate in the United States and other democracies.

Some of the overrepresentation of dynasties in Japan’s leadership reflects a lag in this transformation. Many of the party’s current leaders were first recruited in the early 1990s, before this major change. Kishida was first elected in 1993, for example, and Shunichi Suzuki in 1990. These dynastic politicians occupy a sizable share of senior party members today, even as dynastic ties among younger members are becoming less common.

Why dynasties dominate leadership roles around the world

While seniority explains part of the situation in Japan, there’s more to the story. Dynastic leadership is common elsewhere around the world, too. According to data collected by Farida Jalalzai and Meg Rincker, roughly 12 percent of the world’s presidents and prime ministers between 2000 and 2017 were dynastic.

The numbers vary across regions, with the lowest proportion in Europe (8 percent), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (9 percent), Asia (9 percent) and Latin America (13 percent). In North America, two of eight leaders (25 percent), were dynastic: former president George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The dynastic channel is particularly common among female leaders, as it is among female legislators in general.

In a recent article, Shane Martin and I suggest a theoretical explanation for this pattern — beyond factors like electoral advantages and seniority. We argue that the advantages enjoyed by dynastic politicians in reaching higher offices could stem from two mechanisms. There’s a “direct” effect of the informational advantages of being part of a political family, such as knowing how to signal one’s qualities to party leaders. And there’s an “indirect” effect that operates simply through greater electoral strength and seniority.

Using data from Ireland, where dynasties are also conspicuous, we show that politicians with a preexisting family history in cabinet positions enjoy an advantage in getting promoted, and that this advantage cannot be attributed simply to their electoral strength or seniority.

I’ve observed the same pattern in Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway and Japan. There is no strong evidence that politicians within these families have higher inherent qualities or skills. Instead, it appears that networks and intraparty connections play a greater role in giving them a hand up.

The takeaway lesson from this research is that if Kishida truly aspires to regenerate the LDP, one way to do this is by continuing to create more opportunities for younger members — whose ranks include fewer dynastic politicians — to access channels of information, socialization and influence within his party.

Daniel M. Smith is the Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy in the Department of Political Science and School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is the author of “Dynasties and Democracy: The Inherited Incumbency Advantage in Japan” (Stanford University Press, 2018), and co-editor, with Robert Pekkanen, Steven Reed and Ethan Scheiner, of “Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).