Koizumi's Children

The political stars have come out for Hideo Tanaka, a 59-year-old newcomer to the national stage who is stumping to win Kyoto's fourth district in critical Diet elections Nov. 9. Until a few weeks ago, the lower-house seat he covets belonged to Liberal Democratic Party stalwart Hiromu Nonaka, a curmudgeonly old warrior who, after reformist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi maneuvered him into retirement in September, vowed to "throw out" his nemesis for betraying the party's ideals. Yet barely a month later Nonaka is back on Kyoto's streets doing just the opposite--campaigning alongside one of Koizumi's new ministers for a candidate he now endorses.

It matters little that Tanaka is a bit player in his own campaign. With LDP luminaries like Nonaka delivering the traditional vote and Nobuteru Ishihara, a 46-year-old minister with pop-star appeal, preaching reform at the same rallies, Tanaka need only recite platitudes and bow frequently to be a contender. He has stuck so closely to that script that his opponent, a 36-year-old former bureaucrat who calls himself a Godzilla for Reform, now campaigns against "No-Tanaka"--a play on Nonaka's name. "This is Nonaka's castle," admits Keiro Kitagami, fourth-district candidate for the Democratic Party of Japan. "Even if they have inner feuds, the LDP always comes together at election time. That is their greatest strength."

But this time it's different. The LDP faithful have rallied around a leader who is committed not to protecting the status quo but to changing the way Japan operates. Barring an upset, their efforts should return the party that has ruled Japan virtually since World War II to power yet again. That is not to say Koizumi's path to victory will be routine. In recent weeks he has forced dozens of elderly party men, most his foes, to retire from Parliament. Among them: two former prime ministers and bosses of special-interest "tribes" that once monopolized pork-barrel public-works spending. In their stead the LDP has stacked its ticket with a cadre of relatively young unknowns dubbed "Koizumi's children." The prime minister's legacy now rides on their success at the ballot box.

Putting them in office will be no easy feat. By the late 1990s, in fact, the LDP's support had fallen so much that it was forced into a three-way coalition to retain its grip on power. To reverse that slide, Koizumi's allies have retooled a vote-gathering machine that was built to run on pork. "Most candidates no longer emphasize what they can bring the district," says Takashi Inoguchi, a Tokyo University political scientist who specializes in LDP factions. "The money has dried up." Instead of handouts, LDP hopefuls now trade on the public image of leading cabinet ministers and their ideas for changing Japan (two strategies that sometimes contradict each other). The shift has led pundits to label this month's lower-house contest the "manifesto election."

One measure of the times is weightier party platforms. Another is the proliferation of partisan think tanks churning out economic fix-it schemes. To an unprecedented degree in Japan, media coverage has focused squarely on policy--a trend the electorate evidently welcomes. "I have not decided how I'll vote," says a 30-year-old housewife in Kyoto, adding that she'll weigh candidates based on their positions on public-works spending, the consumption tax and constitutional reform. Despite Japan's stock-market rally and an economy that looks set to post stronger-than-expected growth this year, the LDP can't run solely on Koizumi's record. For many voters, particularly those in traditional constituencies like farming or construction, the present reality remains so grim that boasting of a recovery could well backfire.

Koizumi's solution: run on his charisma. LDP television spots depict him perched on a high stool, his requisite gray coat tossed aside and his shirtsleeves turned up, as he promises to create "a new Japan." Speaking at select rallies in hotly contested districts last week, he drew crowds as large as 8,000, thick with middle-aged women who trilled the endearment "Jun-chan! Jun-chan!" whenever he took the stage. Likewise, Construction Minister Ishihara and LDP secretary-general Shinzo Abe garner mass audiences for their oratory talents and sex appeal.

The opposition has staked its future on a younger ticket, too. But unlike the ruling party, the DPJ is fielding candidates of the sort not traditionally drawn into politics. "Godzilla" Kitagami fits this category. The son of a hardware-store owner in Los Angeles, he grew up in California before moving to Japan to attend college. After graduation he worked in the Finance Ministry until the DPJ recruited him a year ago to run for the Diet. His pitch to voters is twofold: he says he has new ideas based on his upbringing abroad, and as a former bureaucrat he claims to know how badly government currently functions. "I've been inside the prime minister's office," he told NEWSWEEK during a cab ride between campaign stops in Kyoto. "I know what to change and what realistic reform is."

Kitagami's challenge is delivering his message. In this traditional LDP stronghold, his meet-and-greets attract a handful of voters, not the hundreds who turn up for rival Tanaka. In one dismal outing, he campaigned outside a grocery where his small entourage was the entire audience. Eager to press whatever flesh he could, he chased one potential voter down the street and even stepped into the road to block a passing scooter, shaking the startled rider's hand before allowing him to carry on. He knows he's the underdog, but adds: "I didn't quit the Ministry of Finance to be the eternal opposition. Sooner or later we'll take control of the government."

And like Kitagami, the DPJ is positioning itself for the future--a process that entails grappling with a new electoral system. Created under political reforms enacted in the 1990s, new single-seat legislative districts encourage opposition groups to join forces. To that end, the DPJ wants to absorb small parties (as it did the right-leaning Liberals in September) and create a two-party system that might realistically allow it to topple Koizumi's LDP.

The architect of DPJ strategy is party boss Naoto Kan, a headstrong lawmaker known for his mastery of complex policy issues but undergunned against Koizumi when it comes to firing off sound bites. Like his rival, he hopes his brand appeal will rub off on his party's candidates. Under his leadership the DPJ has launched an image makeover of its own. One example: a 21-page booklet that instructs candidates how best to appeal to a demographic it now loses to the LDP--women. It covers everything from public-speaking techniques to a chapter on etiquette that warns against wearing dirty clothes, using too much hair tonic or speaking with food caught between one's teeth.

One signal that the Democrats are scoring points is the LDP's move to co-opt their best ideas. During this campaign, for instance, the LDP initially dismissed Kan's call for toll-free highways as irresponsible, then shifted slightly to advocate reduced road fees including steep discounts at night. The political gamesmanship has divided the owners of one tiny coffee-bean shop in Kyoto. Jun Konishi still backs the LDP, but his wife, Tamami, says she is "fed up" and will cast her ballot for the opposition on Sunday. "I will vote for Kitagamisan," she declares. "I have concluded that we should let the DPJ handle politics for a change and see what happens."

Short of winning a parliamentary majority in a huge upset, the DPJ's aim this race is to fell a handful of powerful but damaged LDP incumbents--a feat that would allow Kan to claim a moral victory even if Koizumi and his cohorts gain seats. A few symbolic wins for the DPJ, say experts, would generate opposition momentum ahead of upper-house elections that must be held by next summer.

Koizumi seeks momentum of another sort. If enough of his "children" pass muster with voters, he will have gained needed leverage both within the Diet and inside the LDP itself. Such a victory will weaken rival LDP factions and destroy the special-interest tribes in the legislature, giving Koizumi unprecedented power to set and implement policy. Last Thursday the prime minister told voters his goal was to retain the ruling coalition's lower-house majority, saying he would "accept responsibility and step down" should the LDP fall short. In all likelihood that won't happen--thanks to no-names like Tanaka in Kyoto and the powerful stars who back them.

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