Japan resounds to 'Banzai' cheers for change: With only 67 per cent of voters turning out, yesterday's 'turning-point' poll became an event for television viewers

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JAPAN'S elections yesterday were more of a spectator than a participation sport. Only 67 per cent of registered voters bothered to turn out, but everyone was tuned in to television in the evening to watch the results coming in. They had little choice, because all the big networks had cancelled other programming to give uninterrupted coverage of the election.

Viewers 'channel-surfed' from one programme to the next, looking for the most interesting confrontations between politicians and interviewers, while party leaders spent the whole night commuting from one television studio to the next to deliver their judgements in voices that suffered from various degrees of hoarseness after two weeks of campaigning.

Hoarsest of all was Tsutomu Hata, the leader of the Shinsei party which split from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and precipitated the elections. Mr Hata sounded like Luciano Pavarotti with bronchitis as he repeated his message that 'these elections are a crucial turning-point for Japanese politics'.

During the G7 summit in Tokyo two weeks ago, Mr Hata met President Bill Clinton, who had his own throat problems during the American presidential campaign and advised the use of throat lozenges. 'I have travelled all over Japan during this campaign,' rasped Mr Hata. 'And I could feel from just shaking people's hands that they were ready for change.' He himself sounded ready for a tonsillectomy.

In even worse shape was Sadao Yamahana, the leader of the Socialists. His party had a stunning defeat, losing half its seats: as the scale of the losses became clear, Mr Yamahana shrunk lower and lower in his chair each time the television cut back to him for his comments: 'It has been very severe for us . . . a very regrettable result,' he mumbled.

Meanwhile each time a well-known candidate in the provinces was declared elected, television cut to their ritual victory cheering of 'Banzai', which literally means '10,000 years' - slightly optimistic, given the current volatility of Japanese politics. Politicians then took up a paintbrush to colour in the second eye of the Daruma dolls which are supposed to bring good luck.

The Daruma dolls are squat owl- like representations of a Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism from India to China, and is supposed to have meditated for nine years facing a wall until his legs fell off. The dolls have two white eyes: to make a wish, one eye is painted black, and when the wish comes true the other eye is coloured in as well.

Political reform was, of course, on the tip of every politician's tongue, as each piously asserted that his party was the most committed to cleaning up Japan's money politics. 'The LDP are complete liars,' said one television commentator to a former prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu. 'They will never carry out reform. If you were serious about it, you should resign from the party.' Mr Kaifu, who has been mentioned as a possible future prime minister for the LDP again, did not like that idea at all, and mumbled something about it being better to 'work for change from the inside'.

The LDP's commitment to reform was, indeed, somewhat cryptic. That was conveyed by Seiroku Kajiyama, the secretary-general of the LDP and second in power to the prime minister, who said political reform should not get out of hand.

And Shintaro Ishihara, the hardline nationalist LDP member, best known for his book The Japan that can say No, said 'No' also to electoral reform. The real problem, he said, was that the political system was 'rotten' and that needed correcting before the electoral system. A rotten chicken before a rotten egg, perhaps?

To add some levity to the election- counting process, TV Asahi took a leaf out of Steven Spielberg's book and did a mock-up video of LDP leaders' heads superimposed on dinosaurs' bodies: the Japanese Jurassic Park had an unmistakable message for the ageing LDP figures, many of whom are in their seventies.

Land of rising expectations, page 18

(Photograph omitted)