Hajime Funada does not have about him the aura of a natural political winner.
Slight, soft-spoken and boyish-looking in his steel-rimmed spectacles, he is, at 25, barely old enough to run for office and is the youngest of 891 candidates campaigning for seats in this Sunday's election for the lower house of the Japanese parliament.
But Funada is a shoo-in because he possesses a single, overpowering asset -- his name. His grandfather held the seat he seeks for 42 years. His father is prefectural governor and a political powerhouse in this central Japanese constituency. In Japan, that is almost always more than enough.
When Funada's grandfather died in April, at least seven politicians -- some with distinguished credentials -- hoped for the Liberal Democratic Party's nomination to succeed him. But once Hajime said he'd like to run, the contest was over, and another dynasty was renewed.
Inheriting a seat in parliament is so common in Japan that it rarely attracts much attention, but this year is different, perhaps because there is not much of an argument about anything else. Newspaper surveys disclose that nearly a third of the LDP candidates are second- or third-generation candidates, a record high. "Is a Diet (parliament) set an asset that can be handed down from father to son without paying the inheritance tax?" asked a writer for Mainichi newspapers.
There is some concern that the practice will turn the lower house into an aristocracy of birth. When the chamber was dissolved for the election last month, a third of its LDP members were sons or grandsons of previous members who had died or retired. Of the 43 LDP members elected as freshmen in 1976, 15 of them were following in the footsteps of a father or grandfather.
Some scions of famous political families are in the lists this time, including the grandson of former prime minister Shigeru Yoshida and the son of former prime minister Eisaku Sato. In one northern constituency all three of the LDP candidates are the sons of former members.
Some critics contend this succession of seats is antidemocratic and limits the flow of new blood into parliament. Kaoru Okano, a professor of political science at Meiji University, acknowledges that some of the inheritors may become wise statemen, but he says he feels basically that the trend is bad for Japanese politics. But most Japanese appear not to mind, particularly those in rural areas where family ties are strong.
Inheriting a famous name is advantageous in any country's politics, but it is especially so in Japan.One reason is the strong respect for tradition. Another is the power of personal appeal, which obscures ideological lines. A third, more important reason, lies in the structure of Japanese politics.
This is the koenkai, or the support association, which forms around most successful officeholders. It is an agglomeration of business interests, minor politicos, friends, and hangerson whose sole purpose is to elect and reelect their candidate.
So long as the koenkai keeps its favorite in office, the winners' benefits -- contracts, public works such as roads and train routes, even bank loans guaranteed by the member of parliament -- flow without interruption. Many such associations are held together by construction contractors dependent on public works jobs in the district.
When the politician dies or retires, the koenkai's major concern is self-perpetuation, and the safest way to assure survival is to coalesce around a son or grandson. Without the binding appeal of the family's name, the whole apparatus might come apart.
Great pressure is brought to nominate the heir. It is said that one prominent political family disapproved of the son's succession but was overruled by the koenkai.
Koenkais are strongest in the rural constituencies where the ruling LDP is usually dominant. One Japanese political commentator compares them to the organizations of small farmers that once paid homage to great landlords. Socialist members also have their koenkais, except in big cities where powerful labor unions usually decide who runs.
Here in Utsunomiya, an 80-minute train ride from Tokyo, one of Japan's most powerful koenkais is in its third generation of support for candidates named Funada. It has more than 150,000 registered members in 50 branches. Its leaders are local government heads, prefectural assemblymen, farm group chiefs, company presidents, doctors, and local community leaders. About 100 people hold the real power.
When the grandfather died in April, it appeared that a brisk internal fight might erupt. The grandson was just turning 25, the legal age for candidacy, and many thought him too young. His father was happy as prefectural governor. The grandson's longtime parliamentary secretary, Susumu Hasumi, wanted the nod and had considerable support.
But all along it was recognized that if the youngest Funada really wanted the job he'd get it, and it was felt that perpetuation of the koenkai would be best served by his running.
There would have been no open rebellion if someone else had grabbed off the nomination, said Kiyoshi Fujii, the current chairman of the koenkai, but "a lot of people would have silently agreed not to work for anyone but Funada."