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Sunday, May 6, 2001

MEDIA MIX

Funny hair beats dark blue suits and bad teeth


One can gauge the emotions now churning through certain portions of the Liberal Democratic Party by a tearful comment made by a member of the Hashimoto faction following the unveiling of a memorial statue of the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in Okinawa last week. The politician was not crying over the loss of a comrade but rather over the mess that his death has caused. If Obuchi hadn't died, "he'd still be prime minister" and we wouldn't have that spoilsport Junichiro Koizumi in the driver's seat right now.

The enmity expressed by this frustrated pol is, on one hand, the source of Koizumi's victory and, on the other, the reason veteran reporter Patrick Smith, in the Asian edition of Newsweek, predicted that his administration is "doomed."

As the instrument of Koizumi's triumph, the Japanese media don't seem to fully comprehend Smith's dire projection. They don't think it's weird that, in the blink of an eye, public support for the administration went from less than 20 percent to anywhere between 65 and 78 percent. The citizens simply hate Mori and like Koizumi, and are willing to ignore the fact that the political makeup of the Cabinet hasn't changed substantially.

Such a reversal of public opinion demands close analysis, but the press have accepted it as normal because they understand that faces are all the citizenry cares about. Smith nailed Koizumi's will to power as "popular aspiration," meaning that his "emphasis on imagery" makes him more of a "symbol" than an effective leader. Once his face becomes an everyday fixture in the media, the public will grow tired of him, too, unless, of course, he actually does something. Smith isn't hopeful. Koizumi is a populist in the literal sense: He wants the populace to like him. And, as his Cabinet appointments have proven, everything else is negotiable.

Images don't float out of the ether. The press were happy to help Koizumi cultivate his maverick facade during the unprecedented LDP primary election for prime minister without questioning whether there was anything behind it.

They were also happy to help the LDP in its effort to make the country forget that Mori was actually one of its own. In order to create the illusion that the four-way election for party head and prime minister was a plebiscite, the LDP allowed prefectural chapters in on the vote. They even set up a "media countermeasure" committee to make sure the press followed the rules of fairness, as if it were a general election.

But, of course, it wasn't, since there are only 1.2 million LDP members. Koizumi, rather than limit his campaigning to party functions, went out on the street and talked to the masses, most of whom couldn't vote because they weren't party members. His purpose was to show the LDP that they couldn't ignore the will of the people, but the very idea of holding a primary proved that the will of the people was very much on the LDP's mind, especially with the Upper House elections coming up in July.

With that other LDP maverick, Makiko Tanaka, in tow, Koizumi's rallies were guaranteed huge media coverage, and not just by legitimate news shows. They were also covered by the wide shows, which have always been in thrall to Tanaka's salty pronouncements. The press went into the crowds and found that the people wanted Koizumi and Tanaka, but not necessarily the LDP. The point lost on everyone was that you couldn't have one without the other.

The plebiscite angle was fortified when the four candidates made the rounds of news shows just prior to voting. A few media commentators conceded that Ryutaro Hashimoto was the only one of the four who seemed to have an agenda, but in the end what mattered most from a news perspective was that Hashimoto hated to be in the same room with Koizumi.

Everyone acted surprised when it suddenly became apparent that Koizumi would win. The press had earlier predicted that Hashimoto would prevail, simply because, despite the primary, a majority in the Diet was still essential for a win, and Hashimoto controlled the largest faction. The surprise was disingenuous, since the media were bored with Hashimoto and his beady eyes. It was more interesting to cover Koizumi's barber, or the Wall Street Journal's comment that he looked like Beethoven, or his affection for hard rock.

Since Koizumi's ascendance, the press has enjoyed the illusion that the new prime minister is somehow sticking it to Hashimoto and his team of sore losers, so they've let Koizumi's Cabinet get away with mouthing the same empty platitudes one always hears from new Cabinet members. No one expects them to be any better than Mori's Cabinet, though Masajuro Shiokawa, at 79, is at least younger than the last finance minister.

The purpose of all the empty talk and empty coverage was to acknowledge the electorate's already well-documented desire for change without trying to understand what changes were needed. In the end, Koizumi's triumph wasn't that of the maverick over the old-boy system, or the reformer over the entrenched interest. It was the triumph of funny hair over dark blue suits and bad teeth.



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