Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Grooming a prime minister

May 12, 2009

What does it take to be a leader in Japan? 

Luck and charm, according to the late founder of a school near Tokyo that has tried to groom political leaders for the past 30 years.

I visited the Matsushita institute of Government and Management recently, curious to see what it was doing to fix Japan’s shortage of strong leadersJAPAN-LEADERSHIP

Ever since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi left the premiership in 2006, two leaders quit just after a year each and the current Prime Minsiter Taro Aso’s job is hanging by a thread before a general election this year.

Konosuke Matsushita, who set up the school in 1979, is said to have looked for luck and charm when interviewing applicants, but in reality, the his institute has worked to instil students with much more.

Students spend a large part of a three-year programme researching a topic of their choice with little guidance from the school. They receive funding and living expenses, but only in exchange for writing reports and undergoing grueling interviews with a school committee on their research.  Alunmi said the twice-yearly interviews force them to think about how to contribute to society. 

JAPAN-LEADERSHIPOn campus, I watched students meditate in a small tea house and practice Japanese fencing, slapping wooden swords onto each others’ helmets.  The activities, the school says, are part of training to clear the mind before making tough decisions.

“People often ask if we teach students how to campaign in an election, but we hardly do any of that,” said Kazuhiro Furuyama, director of the institute. “Instead, we want student to learn basic concepts, like how a person should be.”

Of more than 200 alumni, nearly 70 are now politicians, including two who have served as cabinet minister and one was briefly leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. 

One can’t help but wonder, though, if training at schools alone can address Japan’s leadership shortage.

Just this week, Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa, who until two months ago looked set to become Japan’s next prime minister, quit after a funding scandal hurt his party’s election prospects.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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