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Many novice politicians swept out in Japan's election

The Democratic Party of Japan's victory spelled defeat for dozens of the Liberal Democrat's young guard. Analysts say it shows people voted for parties rather than individual candidates.

September 06, 2009|Yuriko Nagano

TOKYO — Yukari Sato sat in her quiet campaign office and stared at the one-eyed doll that was supposed to bring her luck.

The roly-poly talisman, known as a daruma doll, traditionally comes with blank eyes. While making a wish, the doll's owner fills in the left eye. The right eye is drawn when the wish is granted.

That didn't happen last week for Sato, who experienced a crushing defeat in her bid for a second term in parliament with the Liberal Democratic Party.

"I'm hoping to fill in the other eye four years from now," Sato said.

The 48-year-old is one of 83 Liberal Democratic Party candidates known as the "Koizumi Children" -- first-timers ushered into office in 2005 with the help of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as a way to revitalize his aging party and push forward on postal service privatization.

But last week's elections brought disaster to the novice politicians. Of the 73 Koizumi Children who ran for reelection, only 10 won, the Jiji Press news agency reported.

The political devastation was another indicator of the broad sweep of the Democratic Party of Japan's victory, which ended more than half a century of nearly unbroken Liberal Democratic rule.

In better times, Sato was representative of Koizumi's young guard. Shortly after taking office, the former economist was appointed the party's deputy secretary-general, unprecedented for a junior politician. Instead of clustering with other female politicians, she mixed with the men.

"I think I had the strength standing in a position equal to these men," Sato said.

Sato's key policy successes included a tax system revision.

Still, she wasn't reelected. Experts say the result was somewhat out of her control.

"After Koizumi accomplished his goals for postal privatization, these politicians were no longer needed," said Koichi Nakano, associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"Koizumi has an irresponsible personality. He has boasted that 'politicians are disposable,' " Nakano said. "After Koizumi's departure, his 'Children' were left fatherless, as orphans."

Yasunori Sone, a political scientist at Keio University in Tokyo, said a changing approach among voters may have played a role. Japanese voters have moved away from voting for an individual and instead are voting for a party, he said.

"Public discontent with the Liberal Democratic Party was so high, most party candidates went under," Sone said. "Even political bigwigs who've never campaigned did so this time. It was an impossible situation for the Koizumi Children."

With the latest election comes a new generation of newcomers -- called the "Ozawa Children" after Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who is said to have carefully selected them. Ozawa, who was forced to resign as party president in May amid a fundraising scandal, is set to return as the secretary-general.

Takako Ebata of Tokyo's 10th District is one such Ozawa-led politician. The 49-year-old former pharmaceutical company executive defeated a powerful Liberal Democratic Party candidate.

Women in politics have both advantages and disadvantages in Japan, said Sone, of Keio University.

"With similar qualifications, female candidates are much more likely to win," Sone said. "Females get more attention and are received more favorably. But both major parties in Japan need to do a better job getting these female politicians being more than just a pretty face. They need to fare better in serious policy debates. Some are being nurtured in this direction and succeeding."

Ebata said she is up for the challenge.

"I've long been in the business world, where women are still underrepresented," she said. "I think it comes down to whether you can get the job done or not."

Will Ebata end up meeting Sato's fate? Some say not.

"The Ozawa Children are very different compared to the Koizumi Children, who rode on the coattails of Koizumi's popularity," said Sophia University's Nakano. "Ozawa is not popular. What Ozawa did was train these new politicians on how to run a grass-roots election campaign."

--

Nagano is a special correspondent.

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