Koizumi's popularity rubs off

The Japanese prime minister gave a boost to local Tokyo candidates in yesterday's election.

In her whole life it never dawned on Yoko Kabashima to hang a picture of a Japanese leader in her home.

But the middle-age housewife left the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party yesterday clutching two posters of a heroic-looking Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who has gone from politician to virtual pop star in just two months.

"He shows his feelings openly," gushes Mrs. Kabashima, her hair streaked with orange and red highlights, the in-vogue style. "He is for reforming Japan and I support that."

Mr. Koizumi's coattails gave many junior party members a ride to victory on Sunday in local Tokyo elections, as enthusiasm for the new prime minister enabled the LDP to win five more seats than expected.

Yet, while much of the country seems to have gone Koizumi crazy - polls record his popularity at more than 80 percent - some remain skeptical about when and whether he can really deliver necessary reforms in the world's second largest, but terribly sluggish, economy.

"He's proposing structural reform, but it's like you've only read the menu - you don't yet know what kind of dish is being served," says Yasunari Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University. "He's proposing a new LDP, but the party is still the old LDP, and people are just voting for his popularity."

But being so ninki, or popular, has its privileges. The e-mail magazine Koizumi introduced about a month ago has already gained 1.8 million subscribers. And near party headquarters yesterday, where a stream of supporters used their lunch hours to buy Koizumi posters, there are even bento - lunch take-out boxes - named after him.

Evincing a sense of the prime minister-as-your-pal, the bento boxes at Izuei restaurant are called Jun-chan - the first part of Koizumi's name with an intimate diminutive tacked on the end. The meal boasts eel with gold flakes, since the characters for "Jun" and "pure" - as in pure gold - are the same, and are a symbol of celebration.

"Since we have this situation where he is so popular, having just posters is not enough. So I thought we should have a bento named after him," says restaurant manager Masao Arai.

On Sunday, the party won 53 seats in the 127-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, up from 48, in elections with a voter turnout of more than 50 percent, unusually high for municipal elections. The citywide ballot was viewed as an important prelude to the Upper House elections in July, which was forecast by some political analysts to be the beginning of the end of the LDP.

Instead, Koizumi is turning the party around by selling its best asset - himself. "Just two months ago, no one thought that I would become a prime minister," the long-locked Koizumi proclaimed Saturday at a major Tokyo train station to about 10,000 supporters. "But peoples' voices were heard and they moved the Diet members and chose Koizumi. Peoples' voices are what created Koizumi," he said, as though referring to a massive political phenomenon rather than to himself, hardly typical in Japanese speechmaking.

"I want Japan to be a place where people can be confident about their country," Koizumi said, as masses of people waved small red-and-white Japanese flags distributed at the rally, an uncommon sight after an era in which many here considered flag-waving to be the reserve of nationalists.

Koizumi's style can hardly be tucked into neat categories. He also spoke Saturday about the need to improve gender equality, and promised to devote public funds to day-care centers so more women can work after having children.

Supporters say he speaks to people on a more personal level. In the first edition of his magazine, he griped about his loss of personal freedom upon becoming prime minister. "I am in a bird cage for 24 hours a day," he wrote. "Now, everywhere I go the guards will always come with me.... If I try to go to the movies, I have to reserve many seats."

Koizumi may find it difficult to remain as popular inside his own party as he is with average people. His plans for reform include taking away government funds funneled to Japan's construction and road-paving industries. To do so would enfeeble the powerful faction of Ryutaro Hashimoto, which has long benefited from the symbiotic relationships between politics and big business.

Koizumi is also trying to diminish the taxing authority of the central government and give more of that power to local governments. This week, he will ask for cabinet approval for a strict economic reform plan that will cut public spending, solve Japan's bad bank debts, and privatize public companies.

"We have witnessed the emergence of a super-talent in Mr. Koizumi," says Motoo Shiina, a member of the Upper House who quit the LDP to become an independent. "But when he starts implementing his plan, he will meet real resistance. To overcome this, he will have to have a lot of political ammunition," he adds. "The big question is if he realizes that winning a few battles is not an accomplishment. The point is winning the war, which is dismantling the whole structure and renovating it."

Exactly what kinds of reform homemaker Kabashima supports, or what she hopes to see Koizumi do, are questions she can't answer. And she admits that she's a little star-struck. "Yes, he is handsome," she giggles. "He seems very kind. I'm not usually a movie star fan, but I gain a sense of power, a healthy feeling, just from looking at him."

"I'd be glad if he did even one-twentieth of what he said he'll do," says Mr. Shiina. Perhaps one of the best byproducts of Koizumi's election, he says, is that the premier has given a nod to standing out from the crowd. "Many people here have begun thinking for themselves, and I think that's a very healthy process."

Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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