The political advantages of the ‘parent lottery’

Digitalization minister Takuya Hirai speaks to the media in February. The LDP lawmaker’s family has held a Kagawa Prefecture constituency for three generations and owns two regional media companies. | KYODO
Digitalization minister Takuya Hirai speaks to the media in February. The LDP lawmaker’s family has held a Kagawa Prefecture constituency for three generations and owns two regional media companies. | KYODO

A new term has entered the Japanese lexicon: Oyagacha, which combines the words “oya,” or “parent,” and “gachapon,” those simple vending machines containing plastic capsules, each with a different small toy inside. “Oyagacha” represents the idea that a person cannot choose their parents, just as, when a person puts a coin in the gachapon machine and turns the crank, they can’t choose which toy they get.

Oyagacha is used to explain social phenomena. In a piece written for Asahi Shimbun’s Koron section on Oct. 14, University of Tsukuba sociology professor Takayoshi Doi says an individual’s approach to the wealth gap issue may depend on their age. When talking about opportunity, people from older generations argue that achieving your goals is all about making an effort, while younger generations say that effort doesn’t guarantee anything.

Doi sets the line dividing these two views sometime during the 1990s, when the economy stopped growing appreciably. People who started families before 1990 saw a substantial return on their efforts in terms of education and job promotion. Those who came of age after 1990 entered a world where annual growth never exceeded 2%, so the return on their efforts was relatively small. And yet members of this cohort are constantly told that their material success depends completely on the amount of effort they put into it. Doi says if a child tells their parent they are disappointed because they didn’t win the oyagacha (parent lottery), the parent becomes defensive. What young people really mean by this, however, is that success is a matter of fate, such as being born into a state of material well-being, rather than a matter of one’s talent or ambition.

In another interview in the Koron section, Eri Igarashi, a lawyer and member of the Tokyo Prefectural Assembly born in 1984, talks about her own efforts to overcome the circumstances of her birth. Her family was not well-off, and research shows that household income has a direct effect on educational striving and opportunity. She entered the workforce right after graduating junior high school. When she was fired from her job for no reason she went to the Labor Standards Inspection Office to complain and it secured compensation from her former employer. She realized the company would have ignored her had she confronted her superiors on her own. This impressed on her the importance of education in a way that her upbringing did not, so she started going to night school and studied for the bar examination.

Igarashi’s situation would seem to upend the oyagacha premise. She got ahead by dint of personal effort, but only because she was made to understand its function in real terms. She still considers herself lucky, because she knows other people from underprivileged backgrounds who made similar efforts and failed to get ahead. The media uses the oyagacha metaphor to describe how those from what Igarashi calls “gifted environments” have clear advantages over everyone else.

This phenomenon is especially apparent in politics, where families with members already in office have a leg up on anyone who tries to enter, regardless of skills and knowledge.

A recent Bunshun Online article looked at two political dynasties to illustrate different uses of oyagacha. Taro Kono, who lost the recent presidential election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, is the third generation of a powerful family that has yet to produce a prime minister, though Kono himself denies he is a “seshū” (hereditary) politician due to the fact that his constituency is different from that of his retired father, Yohei Kono. However, Kono’s father is a major stockholder in Nippon Tanshi Co., Ltd. — headed by Kono’s brother, Jiro — which donated ¥67 million to Taro Kono’s political group.

The other political dynasty mentioned by Bunshun is that of Takuya Hirai, the LDP lawmaker whose family has not only represented the constituency in Kagawa Prefecture for three generations, but owns a number of businesses in the area, including two media companies: Nishinippon Broadcasting and the local daily newspaper, Shikoku Shimbun.

Bunshun implied the benefits of Hirai’s oyagacha advantage with details of a recent scandal. A month after the new Digital Agency, to which Hirai was appointed as head, began operations this summer, Bunshun broke the story that the No. 2 bureaucrat in the agency had previously been wined and dined three times by telecommunications giant NTT, a violation of government rules. Hirai was also involved in these outings, but, as Bunshun points out, while many regional newspapers picked up the story and put it on the front page, Shikoku Shimbun relegated it to the second page. Hirai’s brother runs the newspaper, which is owned by their mother.

Hirai has occupied his Lower House seat since 2000. In the 2020 documentary “Why You Can’t Be Prime Minister,” directed by Arata Oshima, the subject, opposition lawmaker Junya Ogawa, who is from the same bailiwick as Hirai, despairs that he may never achieve any of his social issue policy goals because he only gets elected as a proportional candidate. Hirai and his family would seem to have the constituency sewn up, perhaps for generations to come thanks to their business endeavors.

A recent post in the online magazine Daily Shincho explains that Hirai’s two sons have been involved in scandals themselves, but are on track for good careers, probably in politics. The only thing that would prevent them from making good on their birthrights is voters, which is why Oshima has already announced he is making another documentary, this one about the race between Ogawa and Hirai for the latter’s seat on Oct. 31. The last movie made Ogawa a minor star, so Oshima wonders if he can beat the odds this time.

In the longer transcript of his interview with Asahi, Doi says the wealth gap in Japan is particularly bad when compared to other developed countries, and that is due to a social system promoted and maintained by the government. So if your fate is based on the circumstances of your birth, he explains, in Japan’s case it also has something to do with the country you were born in.

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