Japanese voters warm to 'popularity politics'

Sunday's national elections are expected to move Japan closer to a true two-party system.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Japanese are not known to swoon over their politicians. But that's changed, a bit. With national elections taking place here Sunday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is hitting the hustings with his bouncy hair and moderate right-wing patriotism - "Japan, let's move!" - and voters have been shouting back in what seems an emotional reverie.

Sunday's election is expected to highlight three significant changes taking place in Japan:

It appears the campaign message of youthful change and "reform" brought by Mr. Koizumi is well on its way to establishing a new "popularity politics," in which media savvy and fashionable appeal are as important as old-boy networks or specific policies in acceding to power.

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At the same time, restless Japanese voters appear for the first time to be moving their government, ruled for most of the postwar period by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) machine, closer to a "two party" system.

The campaign has become a race between the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto) - expected to win more than 500 seats between them - while a half-dozen other parties, including the formerly powerful Communists and Social Democrats, take about 70 seats among them.

Finally, and perhaps of greatest long-term significance, is the issue of "constitutional change" that lies beneath this election. The gusto with which Koizumi's LDP and the rising nationalist factions in Japan are talking about reform, about Japan's greater role in the world, and about defense against neighborhood bullies like North Korea, is loosening major postwar taboos about sending troops abroad, and about changing a constitution written under Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the postwar occupation.

Sunday represents the first time Koizumi has actually stood for a general election. In 2001, he came to power in an upper-house vote as a relative unknown, the head of a small LDP faction without a real power base. He was the eighth prime minister in 12 years.

Koizumi overcame deep skepticism about his staying power; his risky strategy of going to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il solidified his position in Japan when the North Korean leader actually apologized for a history of kidnapping Japanese.

Should Koizumi score well Sunday, some analysts say the prime minister's stature will deepen further.

Koizumi may gain the political clout to begin the overdue reform of Japanese banking, construction, pensions, and the post office - the systems that are currently putting Japan into a deep financial hole but that Koizumi has only so far talked about reforming.

Many in Japan remain skeptical.

"So far, no party has put forward a reform candidate who can present any specific reform that an ordinary Japanese can understand," says Takao Toshikawa, editor in chief of Tokyo Insideline, a political newsletter.

The hottest single issue this election is Japan's ailing pension system, which many younger Japanese feel is unsustainable, and have stopped paying into - even as the society is graying.

The rise of the Minshuto party as a legitimate and credible option to the LDP is a recent phenomenon, dating to 2001 and the leadership of Naoto Kan. A new alliance between Ozawa's Liberal Party and Minshuto in this election has added to the credibility of a realistic opposition to the LDP, says Minoru Morita, a political consultant in Tokyo.

In an informal lunchtime survey of 14 business people in downtown Tokyo's Ginza district this week, only two stated they were voting for the LDP, and nearly all said they were looking for new candidates and positions. The LDP is expected to do better in rural areas outside the capital.

A life-insurance executive in his mid-30s says he will vote for the Minshuto, and that "most of the colleagues in my office are either voting for the LDP or the Minshuto. That what it is coming down to."

Analysts in both the LDP and the DPJ say that Sunday's election may well hinge on the fickle question of voter turnout. A large turnout is expected to benefit the opposition forces of the DPJ. If the LDP wins more than 241 seats, it will have a majority. Should the DPJ win more than 190 seats, the Koizumi cabinet would probably be unsustainable.

The question of a deployment of Japanese troops to Iraq is politically sensitive - and has been put off until after the elections.

An outspoken candidate's views

Makiko Tanaka, who served as Junichiro Koizumi's foreign minister before differences led to her ouster, is running for the Diet on an independent ticket. The Monitor caught up with her in her homebase of Niigita prefecture.

ON THE LDP AND REFORM:

I don't think the LDP can make the necessary reforms. Japanese politics under the LDP has been much the same for 48 years. What we need instead is a politics that insists that the policies that are pursued after the election are the same that are promised. Japanese want something different; they want choices. The LDP restricts all members to one policy. There isn't much discussion.

ON US-JAPAN RELATIONS:

[W]hile there are benefits and burdens in the Japan-US alliance, the Japanese nation should also have benefits and burdens in working more strongly within the UN. Japan is insisting that the country should be a Security Council member. I think Japan at this stage ... just follows US policies. Yet don't many [US] intellectuals and scholars expect Japan to have its own message and opinions?

ON THE US-JAPAN MILITARY ALLIANCE:

There are many points that can be reviewed. For example, the rotation of US Marine in Okinawa. There should be fewer marine and elite troops in Okinawa ... and some consideration about rotating them to other places [in Asia.]

ON JAPANESE TROOPS IN IRAQ:

The Iraq case is not as easy as Afghanistan.... I am against the Self Defense Forces going to Iraq. For the next four years, Japan will spend $5.5 billion on Iraq. That money is coming during a stagnant economy. Iraq is still a dangerous place for us to go. We should be supporting medical, humanitarian aid.

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