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Cut down by a hairdresser's giggle: Japan's ruling party has lost touch with young people's aspirations. Terry McCarthy in Tokyo measures a generation gap

AKIKO Kobayashi is 24 years old and works as a hairdresser in central Tokyo. She was born in the north of Japan, but came to the city after school because she saw no future for herself at home.

Her grandparents are alive, and continue to cultivate rice on a small plot of land that has been handed down for generations. But her father works for an insurance company, and has little time for or interest in the rice fields.

In Tokyo she earns a good wage, now that she has completed her apprenticeship as a hairdresser. She likes French films, Italian restaurants and discotheques. She can afford to travel to Europe each year for holidays: London and Paris are her favourite cities. She prefers Europe to the US because of 'cultural things': the standard Americanised diet of baseball, Hollywood cinema and the odd holiday in Hawaii, which her parents were brought up on, does not appeal to her much.

She does not have a steady boyfriend, and feels under no pressure to get married by next year, even though 25 used to be regarded as the age after which unmarried women are 'left on the shelf'. Generally she is content with her life: she is safe, relatively financially secure and has little to worry about in her day-to-day affairs.

Akiko rarely reads newspapers, and yesterday morning had not heard of the dissolution of the Japanese parliament and the splitting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) the night before. Her first reaction was a giggle. Her indifference is bad news for the 73-year-old Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, and the old-style LDP politicians who surrounded him.

Mr Miyazawa decided yesterday to hold elections on 18 July for the 511-seat Lower House of the parliament, after the vote of no confidence that forced him to dissolve the House.

Two new political parties are likely to be set up before the elections, and many political commentators are predicting that the Liberal Democratic Party will lose its absolute majority in the House; the LDP at present has 278 seats, compared with 218 for the opposition. The largest opposition party, the Socialists, has 140 seats.

The timing of the elections will complicate arrangements for the Group of Seven industrialised nations' summit in Tokyo from 7 to 9 July. Campaigning will begin on 4 July. The option of holding the elections later was rejected for domestic political reasons: on 22 July, the disgraced former LDP godfather, Shin Kanemaru, goes on trial for tax evasion, and in its current sorry state, the last thing the LDP needs is a reminder to the electorate of just how corrupt its ranks have become.

The party may not be buried yet, but for Akiko and millions of young Japanese like her, the old LDP, led by a man who was born nearly half a century before her, has long since ceased to be relevant to her life.

'I don't like the LDP - in fact I don't really like politics at all. It is just a matter of money for them, and I am not interested,' she said. 'It will be fun if it changes. I hope that happens.'

Her cynicism, shared by many - if not most - Japanese, shows just how far the LDP has alienated itself from today's Japan. It is a party that was set up with a single vision: to keep communism out of Japan and allow the economy to catch up with, and eventually overtake, the US. What to do after that, no one knew.

The LDP wanted to re-establish Japan's virility in the Western world, after the country had been humbled militarily in the Second World War. If that meant working 15 hours a day, six days a week, with few holidays, low pay, cramped housing and virtually no leisure time, so be it. Japan's economic strength was far more important than the aspirations of individuals.

For several decades, the LDP vision worked. In the 1970s, Japan's economic progress was admired by many in the West: by the end of the 1980s it was even beginning to inspire fear in some quarters. The salary men, who had slaved away for Japan Inc for their entire working lives, felt they had arrived: they would be treated with respect when they travelled overseas; they could buy expensive foreign goods; and no one could afford to dismiss the prime minister as a 'travelling transistor salesman' anymore.

But for younger Japanese such as Akiko, it isn't enough. With income levels higher than any Western nation except Switzerland, they want to enjoy similarly high standards of living. Akiko does not like working a lot of overtime, takes all the holidays she is entitled to and would take more if she could. Nor does she like the fact that, when she travels abroad, the respect with which she is treated has a lot to do with her spending power. She knows that the general view of her countrymen overseas is of rapacious businessmen and 'economic animals'.

Akiko does not fit into the LDP vision of Japan: or rather, the LDP does not accommodate the aspirations of Akiko and people like her.

The love-hate relationship with the US of those Japanese who lived through the war and the subsequent US occupation means nothing to her.

If American music or fashion has something that interests her, she will take it; if not, she will look elsewhere.

The electoral bias of the LDP towards rural, rice-farming constituencies instead of suburban districts makes no sense to her and most people of her generation. Modern Japan is not, and has not been for some time now, an agriculturally self-sufficient rice-producing nation, so the LDP's myth-making in this respect is just laughable. Akiko is not going to go out on the streets to demonstrate against the LDP. But at the elections, she will have a vote to cast.

If there is a practical alternative to the old LDP machine, the young hairdresser may just go along to the polling station and make her opinion count.

(Photograph omitted)