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EDITOR’S NOTE - Is the Japanese politician’s life

April 8, 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE - Is the Japanese politician’s life one of rallies, hearings and sound bites? No. It’s weddings, funerals and company parties.

Undated (AP) _ By YURI KAGEYAMA Associated Press Writer

SHIMONOSEKI, Japan (AP) - Hiroshi Ito, a new member of the Yamaguchi state assembly, has an exhausting schedule: If he’s not attending a wedding, he’s rushing off to a funeral, or perhaps a company party.

The social events and courtesy calls that fill his day have little to do with sounding out constituents on issues. Instead, they help Ito cultivate the personal ties that hold Japanese society, and politics, together.

″I spend about 80 percent of my energy fulfilling social obligations,″ said Ito, a chubby, balding native of this southern port city.

He added, with a wry smile: ″It may be more like 90 percent, but to say that is too embarrassing. It’s a big popularity contest. Showing up is always better than not showing up.″

Even as Japan has become an economic superpower, it remains in many ways an inward-looking, feudalistic society. In politics, this is reflected in the emphasis on personal ties over policy.

Sons commonly inherit Parliament seats from their fathers. Some powerful politicians in the governing Liberal Democratic Party are linked through marriage.

Politicians also are expected to display ″ninjo,″ a kind of paternalism, toward their constituents.

″Taking care of others, that’s how you become boss,″ Ito, 51, said in an interview.

As part of that process, politicians customarily offer envelopes containing cash gifts of between 10,000 and 30,000 yen (about $75 to $225) when they attend weddings or other social functions.

Ito said such gift-giving is so common that a politician would be considered cheap if he came empty-handed.

On a typical day, Ito visited officials at his old high school to discuss installing the tile-topped white walls that are popular in the region. The style is from the samurai period.

He sipped green tea with Tomoaki Fujii, the vice principal, who said the walls would remind the students of their heritage. Before the politician left, Fujii also asked for funds to remodel a school building.

Later in the day, Ito stopped at Shimosen Co., a boating-equipment firm, to ask the president, Yoshikazu Murakami, whether he had a job for a supporter’s 19-year-old niece.

Murakami said his small company had no openings, but offered to ask around.

In the evening, Ito relaxed over rice wine and blowfish, the area’s delicacy, flirting a little with Sumiko Matsubara, the kimono-clad pub owner.

Matsubara became an Ito fan because he attended Waseda University in Tokyo, as did her husband and son. She gladly hands out the politician’s brochures to interested customers.

People he had never met interrupted Ito’s dinner to give him business cards. They unfailingly referred to him as ″sensei,″ or teacher - a sign of the hierarchical relationships that suffuse Japanese society.

″I hope you will keep us in mind,″ they said, and bowed.

In order to fulfill the paternalistic role required of them, Japanese politicians place great importance on raising money.

Vast sums of cash are needed to distribute to constituents, finance campaigns and, at the national level, to win Cabinet posts. That means politicians spend a great deal of time seeking contributions from wealthy corporations.

″Americans feel they can participate as individuals in politics by donating to a politician,″ said Shuntaro Torigoe, host of a news commentary program on television.

″In Japan, individuals rarely give donations, and most political money comes from organizations and companies that expect favors in return. Unless this structure of politics changes, scandals will recur.″

The most recent of several postwar political corruption cases involves a former Cabinet member with close ties to Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. He is accused of taking bribes from a steel frame manufacturer.

Voter discontent over the scandals was reflected recently in the defeat of governing-party candidates in two parliamentary by-elections.

Miyazawa has vowed to clean up the political system, as did his recent predecessors, but faces opposition from entrenched politicians.

As a local politician, Ito does not collect money from big companies. Several small- and medium-sized local businesses give him about $1,500 a year each and he is paid a total of $1,400 a month for sitting on the boards of two companies.

His term as a state legislator is for four years and the pay is $6,000 a month.

Ito says winning a statewide election for the first time costs nearly $250,000 and the party provides only a small part of it. His political patron, a Liberal Democratic member of Parliament, contributed nearly $25,000 and will expect Ito to campaign for him.

Kaoru Okano, a professor of politics at Meiji University, described Japanese politics this way: ″There are no real statesmen, only wheeler- dealers.″

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