LDP facelift turns spotlight on young image-makers: Japan's political dinosaur hopes a youthful look will save it from extinction, says Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

SEVERAL months ago, Noboru Takeshita, the former prime minister of Japan who was forced to resign in 1989 because of the Recruit scandal, was in parliament to testify about his role in yet another scandal, the Sagawa bribery and gangster affair. With grey hair slicked back and face showing no expression, the 69-year-old Mr Takeshita calmly denied he had anything to do with Sagawa, and in fact did not even remember meeting any of the people involved.

'Even a child would not believe that,' said Japan's best- known anchorman, Hiroshi Kume, with withering disdain, as the incident was rerun on his late-night news programme. The contrast could not have been starker: the ageing, grey-haired politician obstinately stonewalling his questioners and giving nothing away, and the young, irreverent television newscaster from a different age speaking his mind on air. It was a harbinger of things to come.

The Sagawa scandal eventually led to the vote of no confidence on 18 June which felled the government and for the first time threatened the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) 38- year monopoly on power. But along the way it showed that the LDP was not just going through another routine scandal to be followed by the token apologies and temporary resignations. The LDP had an image problem.

Set up to combat Communism in 1955, the party was increasingly looking like the gerontocratic politburos of the regimes it claimed to oppose. It was seen to be run by a herd of political dinosaurs who long ago had abandoned any sense of representing voters, and were instead trapped in a world of bribery, influence-peddling and obscure factional infighting. Its only virtue was to guarantee stability.

But now that stability is out of the door and the party is being challenged by an array of young, media-friendly opposition politicians, the LDP elders have realised their party needs a facelift - fast. With arch-enemy Tsutomu Hata, the 57-year-old leader of the LDP revolt, becoming a permanent fixture on television chatshows, the LDP has launched its publicity counter-attack: three younger politicians have been given the task of rejuvenating the party's public image. They call themselves 'the three arrows'.

The 'arrows' are all, in fact, heavyweight politicians: Ryutaro Hashimoto, 55, was finance minister from 1989-91; Shintaro Ishihara, 60, is the author of the controversial book The Japan That Can Say No; Yohei Kono, 56, is the chief Cabinet Secretary in the government. But they are relatively young and are seen more as contemporaries of Mr Hata and his co-conspirator, the 51-year-old Ichiro Ozawa, than of the prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, 73.

The three young blades will be making television appearances to put across the message that this time the LDP is serious about political reform. The most influential is Mr Hashimoto: he was forced to step down as finance minister in 1991 to take responsibility for a stock market scandal, but is seen as a possible prime minister: having a good scandal on one's curriculum vitae is far from a disqualification.

As a sign of how desperate the LDP is, they will be joined by Toshiki Kaifu, the former prime minister remembered most in Japan for his polka-dot tie collection. The LDP had used him as a prime minister of convenience after the Recruit scandal because they could not find anyone else untainted by corruption. He was quickly ditched when he began to talk seriously about political reform in 1991, but has recently been resurrected because the LDP realises it again needs to purge itself in public.

Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum Mr Takeshita has been dropped from the LDP slate, and will be running in the elections as an independent.

(Photographs omitted)