Japan's 'lady birds' carry the campaign tune

Most of the year, Aki Saito is trying to make it as an actress. And Ekura Reiko earns a living doing radio voice-overs.

But in the days before Sunday's parliamentary elections - which could sap the strength of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - Ms. Saito and Ms. Reiko are employed as ugiosujo, campaign mercenaries who are paid to promote candidates in round-the-clock canvassing.

Like most ugiosujo - a name that roughly translates to lady birds - they're pretty, young, and sing-songy. But here, political loyalty is contractual.

Do they support the product they're selling? "Hmm..." they answer in unison before breaking into quiet snickers, mindful of whether the chief-of-staff for the candidate from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is listening.

"It's a professional job. I don't need to be a supporter," says Reiko, who wears a thick layer of makeup during the long hours of driving around a Tokyo neighborhood. She bleats out the name of her candidate, over and over again on a megaphone. "This is Banri Kaieda. Thank you very much. This is Banri Kaieda. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you."

Many here grumble that the ugiosujo are not the only facet of the Japanese political system that has begun to sound like a broken record.

Distrust and disillusionment in the country's leadership are high, and economic recovery looks uncertain. More than half of the population declines to be affiliated with any political party, while polls show some 40 percent of the electorate heads into this weekend's election unsure of who is deserving of their votes, if anyone.

The ugiosujo are not likely to help them make up their minds. They are the only campaign faces many of Japan's 100 million voters are most likely to see and hear in the strictly regulated 12-day period before the general election. But they rarely offer much more than repeats of the candidate's name. More serious slogans are frowned on, and debate on key issues is almost nonexistent.

And, in perhaps the sharpest contrast to elections in the West, being a campaign cheerleader is just another day job. What in the US would usually be done by enlisting a few aspiring politicians from the local Young Republicans or College Democrats, in Japan is usually filled by women who otherwise work as actresses, hostesses, and corporate promoters.

"Business is business. If another party asks for our services the next time, we'll do it," says one ugiosujo with a law degree:

Writ large, the line between business and politics in Japan has long been blurry. Critics complain that the big corporations of "Japan Inc." wield much of the power here, tightly enmeshed with party bureaucrats, who make sure elected politicians fall into line.

At the top of the hierarchy, says political scientist Kuniko Inoguchi, are politicians far removed from average people's problems. Japan has yet to see a George Bush embarrassed by the fact that he hasn't seen a supermarket scanner. "Bureaucrats and elites never have to meet with people all their lives," says Professor Inoguchi, of Tokyo's Sophia University.

And since purchasing airtime and door-to-door campaigning are forbidden, the public gets the ugiosujo.

"When it comes to political campaigns, it's usually temp staff," says Inoguchi. "Not that anyone likes it. They're noisy and they're not telling you anything. But this is not a society with a tradition of volunteerism. And the LDP can't attract young people on their own, so they have to pay them."

But even candidates in the opposition DPJ, which appears to have more pull with young voters attracted by the promise of faster-paced economic reform, hire ugiosujo to pump up their campaigns. Mr. Kaieda, a trim and suntanned economist, says the three working for his candidacy are indispensable. "If we didn't use these people, we wouldn't have an election."

Kaieda, a member of the Diet since 1993, notes that he also has one "crow"- the male equivalent of a ugiosujo. After taking a break at his office, Kaieda pulls on a pair of white gloves and a beauty pageant-style banner with his name on it, and slips into the front seat of a white car equipped with a megaphone on top. His crow and his two ugiosujo, wide-smiled and waving, roll away for another spin around the block.

The small flier they're handing out approaches something of a platform, one that may attract voters fed up with the LDP's failure to achieve much but a slight economic recovery. It reads: "Now is the time to throw off the safety net that includes employment pension funds, medical and nursing care.... Stop spending excessive funds on public works projects.... Stop leaving debts to the next generation." They are, however, issues that few candidates or voters dare to voice on the campaign trail.

But in a country where voter turnout is only slightly higher than in most US elections, at least the ugiosujo get out the vote. Michiko Isogai, a former hostess who founded her own promotion company, says about 50 of her 300 employees are now serving as ugiosujo. They bring professionalism to politicking, she argues. In rural areas, this was a job usually done by the candidate's wife and daughters - and sometimes still is.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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