CHIGASAKI, Japan (Reuters) - In a small room filled with the scent of incense, seven young Japanese men meditate, facing the wall in silence as birds chirp softly outside.
The meditation is part of their training at an institute that grooms political leaders in Japan — where many say a stream of unpopular premiers and ineffective politicians has clouded the outlook for a country in its worst recession since World War Two.
Experts say Japan must lure more of its best talent into politics, although not all are convinced that schools such as the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management alone can remedy the shortage of strong leaders.
At the same time, calls are growing for influential political families to stop handing power from one generation to the next, a tradition that stifles potential leaders without connections.
For Shinichi Tomioka, a 32-year-old doctor, the institute is a step toward a political career and his goal of reforming Japan’s medical system after the frustrations he encountered working in an understaffed Tokyo hospital for five years.
“I felt guilty at first, wanting to deal with the problems in the medical system and yet quitting my job as a doctor,” he said after changing into a suit following a morning of meditation.
“But there was a limit to what could be done in the field. To face the problems in the system as Japan’s elderly population grows, I thought change was needed from a broader standpoint.”
While the recession is the immediate headache facing Japan, perhaps the biggest long-term challenge is reforming policy to deal with Japan’s shrinking and fast-aging population.
There is also the dilemma posed by the rapid rise of sometimes rival China and how to beef up Japan’s lightweight role in international diplomacy.
Founded in 1979 by the late Konosuke Matsushita, who set up an electronics firm now called Panasonic, the Matsushita Institute in Chigasaki near Tokyo has trained more than 200 students.
Nearly 70 of its alumni are politicians, including two who have served as cabinet ministers and one who was briefly leader of the main opposition party.
But most students have their work cut out on the road to winning elections at the national or local level.
They face competition from candidates from Japan’s numerous political dynasties, which often anoint sons, daughters or in-laws to take over family-held seats when elections take place.
Such candidates have a huge edge over those with no family ties. They inherit the elder’s support group, name recognition and access to campaign funds.
Some analysts say the dynastic tradition is a big factor behind Japan’s lack of strong leaders because it means elections don’t have a level playing field and flood the system with lawmakers of questionable ability.
Nearly 40 percent of lower house lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) come from districts handed down through families, while the figure is almost 20 percent for MPs in the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
“The huge number of “hereditary lawmakers” means politicians only come from a limited pool of people,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
“They tend to lack ability, whether it be to reach out to ordinary people or to plan policies.”
In a sign of how entrenched the system is, popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to hand responsibility for his LDP constituency to his 28-year-old son when he retires this year, despite being one of Japan’s most reformist leaders in decades.
Defenders of the tradition say it has advantages.
In theory, such politicians can spend less time raising campaign money and focus on policy.
But voters are becoming frustrated with the trend, especially after a string of disappointing prime ministers who had excellent political pedigree on paper.
Shinzo Abe, a grandson of a former prime minister, was elevated to power in 2006 but quit abruptly after just a year. His successor Yasuo Fukuda, a son of a former leader, resigned after less than a year in office.
Current Prime Minister Taro Aso, another grandson of a former prime minister, was criticized for being out of touch with ordinary people after he frequented upscale hotel bars and tapped descendants of political families for key cabinet posts.
Aso is Japan’s 14th premier in just 20 years and his job will be on the line in an election that must be held by October.
At the Matsushita Institute, most of the students have no political pedigree. They train to be self-starters, spending a large part of a three-year program researching a topic of their choice with little guidance from the school.
With only five or six students admitted every year, they are a close-knit group who live on campus for the duration of the program. They wake at 6 a.m. to sweep the campus grounds and jog around a nearby beach.
In a reflection of how men dominate Japanese politics, only 13 percent of the alumni are women, while just one of the current batch of 16 students is female.
Students receive funding and living expenses in exchange for writing reports and undergoing grueling interviews with a school committee on their research.
“You are really forced to think about how you can contribute to the community, how you can change society,” said Hironori Sato, an alumnus, of the twice-yearly interviews.
“Through that, you learn to speak your mind,” added Sato, who is now a member of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly.
The school nurtures self-discipline in the early stages through Japanese fencing and Zen meditation, which students say helps clear the head before making tough decisions.
Some analysts wonder if such training can address the leadership shortage in Japan, even as the urgency grows for an effective ruler to deal with the country’s crushing recession.
“It’s not a problem who the leader is when the economy is expanding,” said Kunihiko Okada, visiting professor of public management at Tokyo’s Waseda University. “But since the financial crisis last year Japan has been like a battered ship lost at sea. Voters are longing for a strong leader.”
Real change may only come when the public gets more involved in politics.
“The Japanese mentality that politics should be left to someone else is another a factor behind the country’s lack of strong leaders,” said Sophia University’s Nakano.
“Unless the public takes politics into their own hands, we won’t see a solution to the challenges Japan faces.”
Editing by Dean Yates