Japan clings to the wreckage: Next week's polls portend great change but a widespread paralysis grips the country

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CHANGE is something frightening to the Japanese mind, which yearns for stability and unruffled consensus. Every Japanese adult who has read a newspaper or watched television in the last three weeks knows that the country is on the verge of revolutionary political change. And yet there is a widespread paralysis, as if the entire pop ulation were standing back at an imaginary door, waiting for someone else to enter first.

'Explaining change in politics in Japan is like teaching about stockmarkets in Russia,' said Yuriko Koike, a candidate for the Japan New Party (JNP), in Hyogo prefecture, 280 miles (450km) west of Tokyo. The JNP is one of three new conservative parties that have sprung up to challenge the 38-year rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the 18 July elections.

In an opinion poll in one of the Japanese newspapers this week, only 15 per cent said they would vote for the LDP in the elections. But in an apparent paradox, 61 per cent said they wanted a future coalition government to include the LDP. 'Voters want the whole system to change, but they're still afraid,' said Ms Koike.

Ms Koike is a former tel evision anchorwoman. She has a colourful background and is a well-known personality around Japan. Her father runs a restaurant in Egypt, she has a degree in sociology from Cairo University and has written several books, including Climbing the Pyramid in a Kimono.

She is far from the traditional Japanese politician.

Earlier in the day, she had been campaigning in Ashiya, a dormitory town on the fringes of Osaka, Japan's second-largest city. Behind her towered apartment blocks, where washing and television satellite dishes competed for space on tiny balconies.

A small crowd had paused outside the local supermarket after doing their shopping to hear what she had to say. She spoke about a new generation of politicians, of cleaning up money politics, and of Japan playing a wider role in the world.

'I don't think anything will change,' said a housewife with shopping bags under her arm. 'The structure of politics goes very deep. It will always be old men, and they will always be corrupted with money.' Another woman said the 'bad root' of politics is 'very thick - it has been growing for centuries'.

Of 10 people selected at random in the crowd, nine said that they did not think Japanese politics would change after the elections, although a majority said that it would be better if there was change. Only one man said there would be change - but that it would be gradual.

A woman with a tennis racket sighed deeply and said the real problem was the voters: 'We need to realise ourselves that we have the right to change our politicians.'

Several people said that change would only happen if forced by the United States - the celebrated gaiatsu, or foreign pressure.

'We have got to get out of this, waiting for the White House to change our domestic policies,' was the point noted by Ms Koike. 'We should be able to stand on our own.'