In a comic illustration of the paralysis of Japanese politics, more attention is being devoted to wacky political gimmicks than to the serious issues facing the country. When the campaigning ends in 10 days' time and voters elect half of the 252 members of the upper house, no important political issues will have been resolved, no serious challenge will have emerged to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and no UFOs will have landed.
'It has been said that we Japanese live in rabbit hutches,' said Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, in a speech for the LDP. 'Unfortunately, it's true. My party promises to improve the quality of life of the people.' Precisely how this would happen was not explained by the smiling Prime Minister.
A more concrete manifesto for improving people's lives comes from the Vinegar Lovers' party, which is campaigning against the use of artificial additives in food. The party is fielding 10 candidates, whose average age is 65, with the oldest aged 87 - proof, it says, of the positive effects of consuming vinegar.
Apparently with equal seriousness, Tokuo Moriwaki, head of the UFO party, is arguing for the setting up of a UFO Intelligence Agency, and the construction of a UFO landing field on the western coast of Japan. 'We would like to announce our theory of 'Opening the earth to the universe' to the Japanese people,' said Mr Moriwaki, who is standing for election for the second time.
It is not hard to see that the Japanese electorate is disillusioned with its politicians. A string of political scandals affecting the government, coupled with the inability of the main opposition parties to offer an alternative to the LDP, has left most voters profoundly cynical. Thirty- two small parties have been set up to try to tap this disaffection in the elections. But although they are providing some entertainment value, no one expects any fundamental realignment of Japanese politics - unless of course the UFOs really do arrive.
'If you love your country, you should try to protect it from the hopelessly corrupt politicians and the system that has become a skeleton,' says Morihiro Hosokawa, head of the Japan New Party and one of the more serious of the new contenders. Mr Hosokawa defected from the LDP to set up the Japan New Party, but his target is to win just three of the 127 seats up for election, and he admits this will pose little threat to the LDP's politicial dominance. 'Everyone knows that we have a structural conspiracy in this country among politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen . . . Politics in the true sense is absent from this country.'
Mr Hosokawa may well despair. The absence of 'politics in the true sense' has become most clear in relation to the controversial peace-keeping bill allowing Japanese troops to serve overseas with the United Nations. It was pushed through parliament last month by the LDP despite the theatrical 'ox-walk' delaying tactics of the left-wing opposition parties. Serious debate over the implications of the bill was studiously avoided.
Although the elections were supposed to act as a de facto referendum on the peace-keeping bill, the government confused the issue by renaming the bill the 'International Peace Co-operation Law'. In response, the left-wing parties have been distorting the issue, claiming the new law means Japanese sons will be sent to war overseas.
Fortunately, inspiration is at hand - from the 'Inventive Politics' party, led by Yoshiro Nakamatsu. Mr Nakamatsu, an inventor of jumping shoes and other household necessities, claims to have 'invented' a surefire way to win the elections. He is prepared to pass on his discovery to other parties - at a price.
JAKARTA - Japanese war veterans want to comb the jungles of east Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, for the remains of thousands of compatriots who died there during the Second World War. Thirty veterans who were stationed in the area during the war last week asked local authorities if they could collect the bones so they could be reburied in a single grave, Reuter reports.