Japanese decide elections are just a laugh

FROM RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

in Tokyo

If Yukio Aoshima was a Western celebrity, he would be somewhere between Garrison Keillor and Norman Wisdom. A grinning, jug-eared 62-year-old, he began his career 40 years ago as a radio sketch-writer, making his name as the housewives' favourite on amiable variety shows like Bubble Holiday and Grown-Ups' Comic Strip.

A book of folksy memoirs about his father won a prestigious literary prize. The songs he wrote in the Sixties for an all-singing, all-dancing pop group called the Crazy Cats are yodelled by drunken businessmen in karaoke bars all over Japan.

This weekend, Mr Aoshima hopes to become one of the most powerful politicians in Tokyo.

For politicians, tomorrow's elections for the governorships of 11 cities promise to be as traumatic as the Kobe earthquake or last month's gas attack on the Tokyo underground.

The governorship elections, which come up every four years, are usually lacklustre affairs. This year they seemed more than usually predictable, after the ruling coalition of conservatives and former Socialists chose to unite behind joint candidates. However, the plan backfired. In the two biggest cities, eccentric "citizens' candidates" are threatening the drab paper-pushers who traditionally fill the top jobs.

Another elderly comedian, "Knock" Yokoyama, seems almost certain to win the vote in Osaka, with double the poll ratings of his closest rival. The Tokyo and Osaka regions are massive urban sprawls, with populations of 8 million and 2.5 million. Their annual budgets exceed those of many countries.

But, opinion polls predict that Mr Aoshima, a former member of the Diet's Upper House, is neck-and-neck with his establishment opponent, a grey figure, a former deputy cabinet secretary, Nobuo Ishihara.

The comics are riding a wave of disgust with incumbent politicians who have shown themselves unequal to the recent disasters. Japanese public life is widely seen as a conspiracy between politicians and big business. But Mr Aoshima has mounted his challenge on a minute budget of 200,000 yen (£1,450), which is a fraction of the usual campaign bill.

Both comedians have made brilliant use of a neglected political tool - television. During the 1993 general election, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was finally toppled by a coalition of small reform groups, television stations and party chiefs made token efforts towards a more adversarial style of political journalism. There were probing questions and soundbites. But, when the reformed coalition evaporated, after a cynical compromise between the LDP and its former Socialist enemies, so did the combative interviews.

Mr Aoshima and Mr Yokoyama are proving that television can be a powerful political force, and that comedians' jokes can count for more than political slogans and bribes.

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