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The Hatoyama dynasty

The scion of a political family could be Japan's next prime minister.

Former leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party Yukio Hatoyama stands to bow to the party's parliamentarians after he was chosen as the party leader during the party's parliamentarian meeting in Tokyo, May 16, 2009. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

TOKYO — The newly elected leader of Japan’s opposition, Yukio Hatoyama, looks set to break the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) half-century stranglehold on power before the year is out. But does he have what it takes to tackle the enormous challenges facing the world’s second biggest economy?

Hatoyama became leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) a little more than a week ago after a close race, following former leader Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation.

Ozawa had been trouncing Prime Minister Taro Aso in opinion polls with his message of change from the murky status quo of corruption and vested interests. In March, however, his top aide was arrested for exactly the kind of murkiness — shady donations from construction companies in return for public works contracts — that Ozawa had been promising to extinguish.

Another pillar of the DPJ’s platform to end the current political order is to break the dynasties that have dominated post-war Japan, through its policy of banning the "inheriting" of electoral constituencies by relatives.

The problem is endemic in Japan: One-third of Lower House LDP members inherited their seats from older members of the family, rising to two-thirds in the cabinet of ministers. The current prime minister, and his three predecessors, are all sons or grandsons of former premiers. These boys, and a few girls, put the Clintons and Bushes to shame, and certainly give the Kennedys a run for their money.

At the end of April, the DPJ announced it would forbid hereditary constituencies to “the third degree of kinship.” And then, a few weeks later, it elected Yukio Hatoyama, the most blue-blooded of blue-bloods.

Hatoyama's great-grandfather was the speaker of the Japanese parliament, his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, was prime minister, his father foreign minister, and his younger brother, Kunio, is currently a government minister in the LDP cabinet. Just for good measure, his other grandfather was the founder of the tire giant Bridgestone. Hardly surprisingly, the brothers are often compared to the Kennedys.

So much for breaking the dynasties then.