Japan goes wild for its 'pop star' Prime Minister

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To track down Japan's most sought after objects of consumer desire, you must leave the arcades of Tokyo's big department stores and make your way to an unpromising grey office block near the National Diet. This is the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and just inside the main entrance is a small souvenir shop run by an overworked man called Watanabe.

He said: "It's an incredible thing, I've worked here for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like it." The cult objects are thin glossy posters and they are snatched up as quickly as he can get them out of the box. "Schoolgirls, old people, mothers with pushchairs, people visiting Tokyo from the countryside ­ all kinds of people buy them."

The posters cost just 50 yen (30p) each and depict a tall, slim, middle-aged man with an unlikely grey perm. He is Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's Prime Minister and its newest ­ and most unexpected ­ popular idol.

In the month since the posters went on sale, 600,000 have been sold across the country, a quarter of them ­ the equivalent of 5,000 a day ­ from Mr Watanabe's little shop. The Koizumi T-shirts sold out long ago and the new Koizumi plates, fans, telephone cards and mobile phone straps won't be in until next week.

In a country with one of the dullest political cultures in the world, Japan's Prime Minister is enjoying the kind of celebrity usually reserved for pop stars and baseball heroes. "He's cool! He's sweet!" says Yuka Iino, a 24-year-old who has just placed an order for the next batch of T-shirts. When pressed, she is unable to identify a single one of her hero's policies.

It is two months since 58-year-old Mr Koizumi became leader of the LDP, thus inheriting the post of Prime Minister, and in that time his star has risen higher and higher. His early approval ratings of 80 per cent-plus seemed like an unsustainable fluke, but since then they have climbed close to 90 per cent.

"I am Koizumi the Lion Heart," he announced in his cabinet inaugural e-zine (electronic newsletter), which attracted more than a million Japanese subscribers. And on Sunday the LDP won the largest number of seats in Tokyo's Metropolitan Assembly ­ an election it seemed certain to lose two months ago. Mr Koizumi has single-handedly transformed Japan's moribund politics into a gripping drama that is dominating the media.

Until a fortnight before the election to the LDP presidency, he was regarded as an outsider and an eccentric. His success was due to a revolt from below, by grassroots LDP members who rejected the candidates put forward by the party establishment. Plenty of other LDP leaders talk of reform, but few have gone into as much detail on it as Mr Koizumi. Even after his election, he has not retreated from his big promises: to privatise the postal system, including Japan's vast post office savings system; to cut wasteful public spending on unneeded roads, dams and bridges; and to reform the Japanese banking system, still crippled by unpaid loans from the 1980s.

He has set out other goals: to change Japan's constitution to regularise the existence of Japan's armed forces, which are technically illegal, and to resist demands from China and Korea to change the way that the Second World War is taught in schools. These last proposals have provoked accusations that Mr Koizumi is a dangerous nationalist; others see it as practical common sense.

Mr Koizumi's toughest promises ­ the "no gain without pain" treatment that he prescribed for the Japanese economy ­ remain unfulfilled. The explanation is simple enough: Mr Koizumi has another election to win, for the upper house of the Diet at the end of next month. But beyond that, he is a politician whose political survival depends entirely on his popularity. He has made enemies of some of the most important men within his own party, and powerful factions oppose him. Even at the local level, his success is causing as much confusion as delight.

"It's having a very bad effect," says Shigeki Miyake, an LDP candidate for the Tokyo assembly. "People want to see Koizumi, and they don't want to see me. When we try to talk about local policies, no one listens. We have to think ahead to the time when his popularity starts to slip."

Yet Mr Koizumi's popularity appears to be sustaining itself, with the opposition weak and divided."I don't think he's almighty and I don't expect any big changes," said Megumi Takahashi, a 75-year-old shopkeeper.

In Japan's current politics, to be a superstar doesn't take much and, for the time being at least, Mr Koizumi is the only one to have what little it takes.

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