Alarm as populist Japanese PM flirts with fascism

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The 15-second film leaves a powerful impression. It begins with trees silhouetted at twilight and sinister black birds rising into the sky.

Next, we see crowds cheering an invisible orator. A drum beats in the background and a voice says: "When the populist makes an appearance, truly frightening things begin. Take the path that doesn't lead back to war."

The implication is that a dangerous and charismatic leader is on the rise. But this is not the former Soviet Union or the Balkans. The film is a broadcast by Japan's Social Democratic Party (SDP), for today's elections to the Upper House of parliament.

Although he is not named, every Japanese can identify the crypto-fascist demagogue Junichiro Koizumi, the country's adored prime minister.

Ever since he came to power last April, it has been clear that Mr Koizumi is a new kind of leader. His approval ratings are still nearly 70 per cent, and crowds at his rallies greet him like a rock star.

The managers of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hardly know what to do with his popularity, while the left-wing SDP fears that Japan's painful history is repeating itself and compares Mr Koizumi to Hitler and Mussolini.

His well-attended speeches are regarded as latter-day Nuremberg Rallies.

Hideo Den, a 78-year-old Upper House member, who saw action in World War Two as a naval fighter pilot, says: "When I grew up in the 1930s, Japan was moving towards war ... this is a similar situation."

People like Mr Den say there is a dark side to Mr Koizumi. First, there is his avowed intention to pray at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine to the war dead.

Then there is his plan to revise Article Nine, which renounces Japan's right to wage war. Thirdly, there is the dispute with South Korea and China over a Japanese school textbook said to gloss over Japan's wartime atrocities.

Most alarming of all is the media infatuation with the prime minister. When the SDP presented its party political broadcast, all major television channels refused to screen it.