EVER since former female TV newscaster Yuriko Koike won a seat in Japan's parliament, she has wondered at times if she is Japanese.
As a member of the upstart Japan New Party (JNP), she helped the party capture four seats last July, a modest victory that sent a small shock through Nagatocho, the site of parliament, considering the party had been founded only two months earlier.
"I'm sort of a gaijin [foreigner] in the world of Nagatocho," she says, but not because she is a woman in what she calls an "all-boys club." Rather, her alien status came with her party's image as squeaky-clean in a political world whose dark side has become more and more prominent in the past year.
The JNP's popularity has risen during recent months in almost direct proportion to the week-by-week revelations of deep-rooted corruption in the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Public prosecutors, marshaling hundreds of investigators, uncovered a stash of bonds and gold bars in the home of former LDP kingpin Shin Kanemaru, who allegedly received bribes from construction companies. Investigators also found a list of pork-barrel payoffs from one company to LDP politicians.
These latest scandals have created a public outrage that has helped the JNP earn a 17 percent popularity rating, second only to the LDP, support for which has dipped below 50 percent. One poll revealed that the LDP has lost 27 percent of its supporters, with one-quarter of those now backing the JNP. All parties but the JNP have lost support as a result of public distrust of politicians.
As a result, the JNP could win big in elections expected later this year and could be the first opposition party to seriously threaten the LDP's 38-year reign.
A sure sign of the LDP's distress is that it is openly attacking JNP founder Morihiro Hosokawa, a former LDP member who was a popular governor and served in parliament's upper house.
"I don't want people to think that Hosokawa is one of the good guys," says Taku Yamasaki, a prominent LDP member who says he is a longtime friend of the JNP leader. He says the newly formed party is still so fragile that "it looks like glass and you never know when it is going to break."
The LDP also is probing the longtime opposition Japan Socialist Party, which recently was accused of receiving regular payments from the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The LDP has even sent investigators to Moscow to search records.
The JNP's attraction is that it offers an alternative conservative party with fresh, clean faces. But its main appeal is its anticorruption campaign. It also tries to woo young, urban voters by favoring imports of foreign rice, decongesting Tokyo and its powers, revising the Constitution, and setting a quota (20 percent) for women as party candidates.
Mr. Hosokawa, a former journalist, cites the recent uncovering of Mr. Kanemaru's hoard of wealth as indicative of the LDP's widespread corruption. "The Kanemaru crime will lead to a political revolution," he says.
The JNP's popularity has risen faster than Hosokawa expected because of the arrest and jailing of Kanemaru in March. The party plans to field candidates for all 512 seats in the coming lower house election.
Public prosecutors have dug up so many documents of payoffs to the LDP that the party's leaders are suddenly taking political reform more seriously to avoid a split in its ranks and to co-opt JNP supporters.
"The LDP is in a pinch," Mr. Yamasaki says. "Politics are in a very fluid state now. We have to regain public confidence. Political reform is really needed."
The JNP is targeting secrecy as well as graft. Ms. Koike says the parliament is very much like Japan's Kabuki theater, with scripted confrontations, hidden stagehands, and many of the actors (politicians) inheriting the profession of their fathers.
"But there is one big difference between Kabuki and the Japanese parliament. Kabuki is worth paying for, worth preserving as a national Japanese art, but the parliament is not."
The young party has been advertising for people who wanted to be candidates. Of about 500 applicants, more than 50 have been groomed. Of 20 JNP candidates selected so far, the average age is under 42, an unusual step in age-conscious Japan.
In addition, the party opened a school for would-be women politicians in February, attracting 100 trainees. "The JNP has offered opportunities for ordinary but politically talented citizens to participate in politics," Koike says.
She cites the recent decision by a foreign service officer, Masako Owada, to marry the crown prince as inspiration for women in the party. "In the age when a career woman in a Calvin Klein suit is going to become the crown princess, it is ridiculous that Japanese women should walk three steps behind men," she says.
The JNP, which lacks the immense financial backing enjoyed by the LDP, still faces an uphill battle if the Japanese economy picks up steam and the LDP is able to put its scandals behind it. Koike admits that the JNP's popularity may be based somewhat on the failures of old parties rather than the JNP's strengths.
"It is my mission to let the normal people know about the secrecy and mystery of our parliament," Koike says.
"We can never change Japanese politics until we change the consciousness of Japanese voters."