In Japan, a leader whose words work wonders ...

Liberal Democrats expect a rebound in elections Sunday, thanks to Koizumi's direct, plainspoken leadership.

Asked how he copes with tension, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has this advice: "When new stress arises, I forget the old stress," he wrote in his online newsletter. "I want to be positive and face up to the future....

"This," he boasts, "is Koizumi's way."

"Koizumi's way" seems to be working.

Mr. Koizumi's staccato sentences and tendency to cut to the chase have captivated people across Japan. Television ratings for debates in the parliament (Diet) - once considered the dry fare of policy wonks - have reached an all-time high.

And the plainspoken premier's soaring popularity - his approval rating is around 70 percent - is expected to boost his party in parliamentary elections on Sunday. The once-flailing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looks set to win a majority of the contested seats in the upper house - far more than expected just three months ago, when Koizumi rose from dark-horse candidate to charismatic leader.

The e-newsletter, which has more than 2 million subscribers, is just one of the ways Koizumi shares his personal views. In a live TV special, he chatted with Japanese women about issues from economic reforms to his favorite foods - Ramen noodles and dumplings. And the cover of a CD due for release next month - "Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs" - digitally places the rock-star-like Japanese leader alongside the American music legend.

It's a unique and unconventional tack, in a country where details about politician's families, hobbies, likes and dislikes have traditionally been considered private, so much so that few voters have a sense of their representatives as individuals.

"By talking about his private life honestly, affection arises," says Hiroshi Edogawa, the chief of Language and Communication Training Center Japan. "Expressing things truthfully is what the people want."

Tens of thousands of supporters turned out in the sweltering summer heat to listen to Koizumi's campaign speeches.

"I love Mr. Koizumi!" gushes Yukiko Yamanaka, a high school student. "He is attractive, and I listen attentively whenever he [is] on TV. I even watch the Diet debates."

According to a survey conducted by The Asahi newspaper, the way Koizumi "talks with words that are easy to understand" is the top reason why Japanese voters like him. "Mr. Koizumi's speech is unique," says political analyst Masaya Ito. "He speaks in his own words. Until now, prime ministers used to just read speeches written by bureaucrats."

According to Mr. Edogawa, when a written Japanese speech is delivered, it is harder to understand than spoken Japanese. When reciting what is written on paper, a speaker must use Chinese words that are a combination of Chinese characters. For instance, "to think," which is a spoken term, will be written as "to consider" in kanji, or Chinese characters, which make up the bulk of the Japanese writing system.

Koizumi is also winning favor with many Japanese because he does not use what is considered "politicians' language," replete with vague and abstract phrasings. A politician will often say, "I will consider it," for example. In the political world, it's the equivalent of a polite brushoff, which can leave listeners with the impression measures will be taken.

"Mr. Koizumi is concrete," says Edogawa. "He clearly states if something cannot be done."

Take the slogan Koizumi used while running for the LDP's leadership election: "To carry out a structural reform with pain."

Most Japanese welcomed his candor at a time when the need for change was widely accepted as an answer to Japan's stagnant economy and entrenched links between the political and business elite. Many voters appear willing to accept "the pain" - belt-tightening and restructuring - since Koizumi was up front about his intentions.

"For a premier, he is persuasive and is easy to listen to," says Karuhiro Yamaguchi, a pharmaceutical worker.

Koizumi's candor struck a chord with a public tired of vagueness, and lies after a series of scandals. "The popularity of Koizumi came in reaction to [former prime minister] Mr. [Yoshiro] Mori's wiggle behavior. Mr. Koizumi is not like that, and he is clear. If there is something that needs to be done, he will say that it will be accomplished," says Mr. Ito.

"I want more politicians like Mr. Koizumi to appear," says Chiyo Hara, an office worker listening to a campaign speech for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

There are signs that a few politicians are trying to emulate Koizumi's success, answering questions about their personal lives on talk shows and battling robots in kooky campaign ads.

So far, such familiarity breeds popularity. But some Japanese say the prime minister will still have to make good on his words. "I believe his popularity will not last long. The Japanese people are fickle, and I think this is just a fad," says Mr. Yamaguchi. "He must show some kind of result."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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