Of the 32—32!—prime ministers who have served under the 1947 Japanese constitution, two are brothers while four are direct descendants of other prime ministers. The brothers are Nobusuke Kishi and Eisaku Sato. The four descendants are Shinzo Abe (grandson of Nobusuke Kishi), Yasuo Fukuda (son of Takeo Fukuda), Taro Aso (grandson of Shigeru Yoshida), and Yukio Hatoyama (grandson of Ichiro Hatoyama).
The brothers Kishi and Sato enjoyed arguably remarkable careers to the great displeasure of the progressive media. The other four, however, are notable mostly for succeeding each other from 2006 through 2009 in grief-filled one-year terms, although Abe has been given a second chance only five years later to redeem the family heritage. Also notable is the fact that the brothers have different surnames and that two of the other four do not bear the name of their illustrious forebears. And one—Hatoyama—of the two who do spent his entire political career in opposition to his grandfather’s Liberal Democratic Party. And of course, there is not a single woman in the lot.
All this is in sharp contrast to generational succession in South and Southeast Asia, where political legacies founded by patriarchal figures are passed on more often than not through widows and daughters, but rarely if ever between brothers.* A similar situation is seen in the history democracy in Latin America. And South Korea is hard to categorize since Park Geun-hye, now 60, has never married.
Nepotism is universal; you only need to look at the coaching staff and front office of American sports teams to see that.** However, a democracy demands that you clear the first stage on your own by winning an election. Beyond that, the path to the office of the head of state/government is complex and very much dependent on the political framework and history of the specific country. What then, makes Japan unique? I think that I’ll reserve my yet-to-be-formulated answer to that question for another, possibly more formal occasion. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this thought: If you’re a resident of the far more mobile United States, much of it is about name recognition; in Japan, it’s more about the family business. Specifically, Shinzo Abe could never have won his first election in, say, Tokushima, like Hillary Clinton did in New York.
* Should I read any meaning into the fact that Thailand now has Thaksin’s sister, not brother, in place and that Yingluck is often seen as a mere stand-in?
** To be fair, the baseball coaching staff appears to relatively free of this practice aside from a random batboy here, batboy there. But there’s another time and place for this discussion. Another topic for discussion: Would Robin but for baseball have been called Batboy? Yet another: Does any couple outside of the Sinic states and regions give the name Robin to their son?