Ageing Elvis checks into heartbreak hotel

Cabinet chosen: Struggle to persuade colleagues to take ministerial posts points to difficult future for new prime minister
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Tokyo - It doesn't take much to be labelled "colourful" in Japanese public life, but by the grey standards of his fellow politicians, Ryutaro Hashimoto, 58, is a flamboyant character. Quite apart from his reputation as a tough negotiator and back-room deal-maker, the new Prime Minister is an accomplished photographer, a black belt in kendo (Japanese swordfighting), a mountaineer (two Everest attempts) and, according to insistent rumour, something of a ladies' man (a bar hostess who claimed he seduced her revealed that "even after we had finished, he did not creep away like most men").

His brilliantined hair, greasily smooth complexion and ear lobe-deep sideburns have provoked comparisons with Elvis Presley - even if he doesn't own blue suede shoes, he did once meet US trade negotiators dressed in a green leather suit. After the moribund premiership of Tomiichi Murayama, his formal endorsement as Prime Minister comes like a whiff of expensive aftershave.

Japan has been struggling to renew its political system since 1993: as the fourth Prime Minister since the last election and leader of a feeble three-party coalition, good looks and popularity are never going to be enough for Mr Hashimoto. To sustain his power and fulfil his charismatic promise, he is likely to assume a lower profile over the next few months and concentrate on the unglamorous but essential task of rallying his Liberal Democratic Party .

Mr Hashimoto is above all a political professional, unfettered by principle and quite capable of shifting his ground for practical gain. Unlike Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Shinshinto (New Frontier) party, a supporter of free trade and greater participation in diplomacy and peace-keeping, Mr Hashimoto has few signature policies. He is believed to favour deregulation and an opening up of Japanese markets; ironically, though, he came to prominence last year as Minister of International Trade and Industry by refusing to give in to American demands for guaranteed access to the car market.

Similarly, he gained a reputation as a nationalist when, as president of the powerful and ultra-conservative Association of War Bereaved Families, he made a controversial visit to a militarist shrine on the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat in the Second World War. But after his election to the leadership of the LDP, he resigned his presidency.

As the first LDP Prime Minister since 1993, when the party which had governed for 38 years lost its majority after reformers (led by Mr Ozawa) broke away, his first priority is winning an election. Mr Hashimoto's father also was a cabinet minister; Ryutaro inherited his constituency and his support in the party machine, but in most respects he is an outsider, a flouter of the party's stern hierarchies.

He has few close LDP allies and is far enough to the right to cause unease among the Social Democratic Party of his predecessor, Mr Murayama, which is still indispensable to the coalition's uneasy majority.

The next election must take place by summer 1997, but its exact timing is the Prime Minister's call. In the meantime, the government faces big problems with the bail-out of bankrupt housing-loan companies and US troops on the island of Okinawa, the object of widespread resentment since the rape of a local girl last year.

Mr Hashimoto also faces a formidable opponent in the turncoat Mr Ozawa, who repeated his insistence on a speedy election. A new electoral system, replacing many of the old multi-member districts with single-seat constituencies, makes the business unpredictable. If Mr Hashimoto fails his party at election time, it is hard to imagine he could keep his job. Elvis lives, but only for the time being.