In 1979, one of Japan’s wealthiest visionaries created a training center for aspiring politicians, hoping that a new generation of bold decision-makers could counter the “vanity and mediocrity” of Japanese leadership.
That decades-old plan to nurture reform-minded politicians, launched by then-85-year-old Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita, faces its biggest test with the appointment of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, a member of the institute’s inaugural class. Noda, 54, comes to office at a time when the nation at large condemns its government, led in recent years by men who haven’t lasted long in the top job.
The Matsushita graduate institute trains its students to base their policies on long-term and lofty objectives. But analysts fear that Japan’s present-day political chaos will thwart those ambitions, with Noda forced to referee the power struggles and factional rivalries that make politics here so difficult. Like his predecessors, analysts say, Noda won’t change the system itself.
“Noda will be a test case,” said Katsuhiko Eguchi, a Matsushita assistant who interviewed a young Noda before the institute admitted him. “This will tell us whether the Matsushita mission has a chance.”
In concept, at least, Japan needs an institute that can help guide its best and brightest into politics, a field long dominated by family dynasties.
Japan has had 15 prime ministers in 20 years. Few have managed to sell the public on a vision about how post-bubble Japan should adapt as its population shrinks and workforce declines. The five prime ministers since 2006 who preceded Noda lasted, on average, 360 days. Four were either the sons or grandsons of former prime ministers.
A poll conducted last month by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, suggests that both major parties have support ratings of less than 25 percent.
That dissatisfaction points to a broader problem, said Gerald Curtis, a political scientist who splits his time between Columbia University and Waseda University in Tokyo. “The public wants a leader who can communicate, who can persuade them,” Curtis said. “This is a positive development in terms of public attitude, but the politicians have been incredibly slow to respond.”
Since 1980, when the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management opened to students, the school has had 248 graduates. (It sometimes admits just five or six in a year.) Thirty-eight of its graduates hold seats in Japan’s parliament. And, two weeks ago, Noda installed Matsushita alumni in key advisory positions, naming Koichiro Gemba as foreign minister and Seiji Maehara as a top policy chief.
But even the brightest Matsushita alumni encounter a problem that stymies their reform efforts. To reach the upper levels of party leadership, they must first enter the parliament — the very place where iconoclasm is least welcomed. In Japan’s parliamentary system, prime ministers rise only after spending years winning loyalties within the Diet’s feudal network of factions and family ties. Prime ministers almost never come from the business community or local government.
That’s why the political system today still looks much like the one Matsushita criticized three decades ago. Matsushita said Japanese politicians lacked an international perspective. They preferred expedient quick fixes, putting off the biggest and toughest issues. They also became influenced by a massive bureaucracy, where rigid protocols stamped out individual ideas.
“Why can’t we change these systems?” said Kazuhiro Haraguchi, a member of parliament from the Democratic Party of Japan and a Matsushita alumnus. “Because [policymaking] is a hierarchical system like a pyramid, and once you are in the system, you do not have to think for yourself.”
Both when Noda attended and now, the Matsushita institute operated with a new-age bias, teaching government as management, with parties akin to firms. Successful business executives, not politicians, were recruited as advisers. To encourage independent thinking, Matsushita favored research projects and self-instruction over classroom teaching. To foster determination, he asked enrollees to live in spartan dorms and take 100-kilometer walks.
“It is a dojo” — a martial arts training ground — “where you train yourself and your soul on your own,” said Ichiro Aisawa, a classmate of Noda’s and a Diet member.
Noda was one of 907 applicants for the 1980 inaugural class , and one of just 23 selected. Students in his class spent five years at the institute, located about 30 miles southwest of Tokyo. The group had been picked based on several abstract guidelines; Matsushita wanted people who were amiable and charming. He also wanted people who had convictions, said Eguchi, who helped set up the institute.
Matsushita loved Noda’s background, Eguchi recalled, because it showed pluck. His father was a Self-Defense Forces officer, but, despite his humble roots, Noda had made it to the elite Waseda University.
“I thought, ‘This guy will be a great politician,’ ” Eguchi said.
Noda won his first prefectural assembly seat in 1987, after a 13-hour stump speech outside a train station just before the election. While campaigning, he tutored students and worked as a gas inspector to earn extra money.
His first major decisions as prime minister, though, suggest that Noda will follow the cautious approach of his predecessors. When forming his cabinet, Noda picked several people with ties to rival factions, hoping to repair cracks in his party.
Critics suggest that Noda will expend so much energy holding his party together that he will hesitate to address the contentious policy questions that Japan has put off for too long. He might be an adequate leader, they say, but he won’t be a transformative one.
“Matsushita used to say, ‘You have to confront, but you have to cooperate,’ ” Eguchi said. “But Noda is just trying his best now not to create enemies. Noda is compromising his philosophy, and that is his weakness.”
Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.