Political Theater

So how does it feel to be an assassin? "I totally reject the word," says Kuniko Inoguchi. She's campaigning for office, she says, because she wants to revitalize Japanese democracy, and democratic political culture has no room for assassination. She might be taking things a bit literally. After all, the "assassin" tag that's been attached to her and some of her colleagues in Japan's parliamentary elections merely refers to the fact that they've been hand-picked to vanquish competitors who dared oppose the reform plans of their political patron, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But Inoguchi, 53, insists the campaign isn't personal. "The core philosophical element of democracy is the nonviolent resolution of conflict," she declares, sounding every bit the political-science professor and former diplomat that she is.

Worthy sentiments. Too bad that she can't get the Japanese media to listen. And for that she has Koizumi to thank. The prime minister has deftly redefined the country's Sept. 11 election as a grandiose revenge drama, a shadow play of good versus evil against the backdrop of a political and economic landscape desperately in need of reform. The spectacle is titillating voters, who have never really seen anything like it in the 60 years since World War II. More important, Koizumi's stagecraft is also wreaking a fundamental transformation in the way Japan does politics--and that, perhaps more than anything that Koizumi has managed to do about the economy, may well turn out to be his most lasting legacy.

Not that anyone should really be surprised. Koizumi brought off a sea change in political style back in 2001, when he first won election to the government's highest post as a populist, charismatic candidate who appealed directly to voters--at times overtly snubbing his own Liberal Democratic Party, which was unaccustomed to such showmanship. But there was substance, too. Included in Koizumi's message was not only a promise to deliver comprehensive reforms (appealing to a populace exhausted by a decade of economic malaise), but also a vow to transform his own party that proved strikingly popular among voters.

Needless to say, not all of Koizumi's reforms have gone quite as smoothly as he promised. But last month he finally made good on his original promise to vanquish the "forces of resistance" within his own party by dissolving the lower house of Parliament and calling a snap general election. Koizumi announced the dissolution in order to punish the dozens of LDP members who voted against his plans for reforming the national postal system (which also happens to be an immense, state-run financial-services company holding $3 trillion in savings and insurance premiums). The move wasn't entirely novel. Snap elections have been called before in the Japanese postwar era. But what Koizumi did next was something completely unprecedented: he vowed, essentially, to ban the anti-reformers--now dubbed "rebels"--from campaigning for the party in the coming election, and he recruited a new slate of candidates to run against them.

Enter the shikaku, the "assassins." In a calculated provocation, Koizumi has chosen a slate of candidates guaranteed to fire the electorate's imagination--a common consideration in American elections, say, but rare in Japan, where take-'em-or-leave-'em party hacks have usually been the norm. Most of the shikaku are women who pose a stark and telegenic contrast to the elderly and overwhelmingly male rebels. Yuriko Koike, Koizumi's Environment minister, is a popular TV personality and Arabist turned politician who will be going up against Koki Kobayashi, one of the most prominent rebels. Another of Koizumi's shock troops is a former model turned Finance Ministry bureaucrat. Yet another is the chief economist at a leading Western bank in Tokyo. And then there's a well-known cookbook author, Japan's answer to Martha Stewart.

Predictably, many Japanese dismiss the whole thing as a cynical vote-getting ploy, derided as Koizumi gekijo, or political theater. Feminists have been decrying the shikaku as tokens in a country that still scores 102nd in the world in female political representation; the rebel LDP members castigate them as minions of the "dictator" Koizumi. Yet all these critiques may be missing something. For one thing, Koizumi's skillful recrafting of the election narrative--the young female "ninjas" out to off the antiquated patriarchs--has personalized a dry debate about reform that has foundered for lack of public momentum. Voter interest in the elections is surging. Polls suggest that participation could run as high as 70 percent. One of the nonfemale assassin candidates, Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, has been conducting an unorthodox, grass-roots campaign in Hiroshima that may well end up bringing large numbers of usually apathetic young people to the ballot booths.

Along the way, the prime minister's flourish has also succeeded in diverting attention from his other opponent, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "They've basically been left off to the side, saying, 'Hey, what about us? Don't forget about us!' " says Temple University professor Jeff Kingston. In a survey conducted on August 29 and 30, the day campaigning began, 34 percent of the respondents said they supported the LDP while just 13 percent pledged allegiance to the Democrats. Forty percent of the respondents were undecided. Says Robert Alan Feldman of Morgan Stanley: "Koizumi is putting his so-called assassin candidates forward as people who are giving the people of Japan a choice." And it's easier to choose a fresh face over an establishment cadre than to vote directly for possibly painful reforms.

Of course, there's no question that Koizumi could still lose. The biggest risk for him is that the civil war between rebels and assassins could end up splitting the LDP vote and handing victory to the DPJ. Ironically, though, even if that happens he could still end up seeing some of his objectives become reality. In the event of a loss by Koizumi forces, the LDP as it presently exists might well collapse or splinter, perhaps leading to a new party that is more coherent ideologically, no longer dependent on its symbiotic relationship with vested interests and more responsive to public opinion. Of course, if the LDP wins by discarding its dinosaurs, the result might be similar--a ruling party modernized and freed of many of its old burdens. One of the most powerful results could involve demographics. Historically, the LDP has been highly dependent on rural constituencies, particularly the country's deeply conservative (and highly subsidized) rice farmers. Koizumi's strategy for creating an LDP less beholden to vested interests could, among other things, swing the balance back in favor of urbanites--a younger and growing power base, in stark contrast to the graying population in the countryside.

In short, even theater has it uses. To many voters Koizumi's maneuver has dramatized the notion that this election is about something fundamental--unlike the elections of old, when the LDP was pretty much the only choice in town for Japan's silent majority. "It's different this time around," says Maki Horikawa, a 34-year-old Tokyo housewife. "In the old days it was all very hard to understand. Now it's all very clear. Before it was always Kabuki. Now it's a musical." Koizumi couldn't have said it better himself.