'Horiemon' shakes up old school politics in Japan

As Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's political revolution unfolds, one of the newest path breakers is a slightly chubby, young Internet tycoon who gels his hair, says what he wants, never wears a tie - and lost his race.

Takafumi Horie is not even a politician. He's best known as the brilliant college dropout owner of Livedoor, a portal formerly called On the Edge, and as the author of "How to Make 10 Billion Yen." Mr. Horie tried to buy a baseball team, and nearly took over influential Fuji TV this spring. A Horie-led channel would have rocked Japan's media establishment, which of late pejoratively calls Horie "un-Japanese."

In fact, Horie's colorful persona proved perfect for Koizumi.

The prime minster's project is to shake, rattle, and roll Japan out of familiar mindsets and ways. Mr. Koizumi's major snap election victory last week, after kicking the powerful old guard out of his party, is seen by many here as a real turning point, particularly since it was followed by new indicators of an upswing in the economy and national confidence.

By asking Horie to run for office, Koizumi also gave him a stamp as a public figure to be reckoned with. Horie was sent to Hiroshima to directly attack an old-line power broker, Shizuka Kamei, who is at the heart of Koizumi's opposition.

Horie lost, but not badly, and it became clear later that his main task was to stir things up. Koizumi used the same tactic with his so-called "assassins," attractive female politicians sent to run for office in political districts controlled by Koizumi's opponents.

That Horie, as an outsider, could fly in from Tokyo, take on Mr. Kamei in his home constituency, and make it a race, shows that the structures of power politics in Japan are cracking, says Gerald Curtis of Columbia University.

Horie, who calls himself Horiemon after the cartoon creature Pokémon, is a poster child for the young, educated, hip urban voters that Koizumi wants to attract. That group is still forming its identity in Japan. But it reflects many of the soft counterculture attitudes of the so-called "Freetahs." The expression means those with free-time, who work part time, and opt not to become traditional "salarymen," loyal to the company, and who feel no special allegiance to Japan's machine politics.

For them, Horie is someone to identity with. He's all about being direct. When asked what his dream for Japan is, he says, "World peace and space travel." He's a walking, talking challenge to the collective authority that defines appropriateness here. He drips "attitude."

At one point, when asked innocuously by a famous TV anchor about his views on the election, Horie shot back, "That's not a question," implying it was a waste of his and the viewers' time.

But ordinary people loved it. "He's not afraid to speak his mind," says Takahara. During the election, Koizumi began campaigning in shirtsleeves with no tie in a style he called "cool biz." The cool biz look is a major departure in Japan, but it became so popular that Koizumi opponents wearing ties and coats started to look staid, experts say. Horie was a "cool biz guy" before Koizumi ever came up with the term, and was known for meeting with powerful executives without a tie.

What Horie represents is "an indication of changed values in Japan, one that allows a wider range of acceptable behavior," says Stephen Romaine, a US executive in Tokyo with the Hudson Group, who has watched Japan for 20 years. "Horie is like a friend or neighbor's kid who made good. Everyone knows who he is."

Horie has been called a threat to Japanese values by powerful conservatives who say his approach to business takeovers is mercenary. This spring he landed on page 1 for days in his bid to merge old and new media together, by taking over the grizzled Fujisankei TV network. Fuji executives were horrified. He's also been branded a "media flake" by leading liberals who say he's a slave to the camera and has no idea how to actually conduct real politics and reform. Livedoor purchased shares of Fuji during off-hours trading, considered unorthodox. But just as Horie was preparing to take the keys to Fuji, the company announced that it had been quietly bought by a different firm.

Horie is part of the Koizumi style of "media politics, of media imagery, something Japan has never had," says David Wank of Sophia University in Tokyo. "Koizumi supported TV cooking-show celebrities to run against older politicians. Do these people know anything about public policy?"

Horie has taken his cues on reforming the Japanese postal system directly from Koizumi. Reform of the postal service, which in fact represents the world's largest bank, was the central issue of the Sept. 14 elections - and something Koizumi has tried to accomplish unsuccessfully in his five years in office.

"When it was announced that Koizumi was bringing Horiemon into the LDP, everyone thought it was joke," says Ben Dorman, an expert on Japanese culture at the Nanzan Institute. "Then everyone realized it wasn't a joke. That was a moment when people knew Japan was changing."

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