Tue, Sep 06, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Charismatic rebel takes on Japan's traditional politics


Japan's Internet tycoon Takafumi Horie smiles with his supporters for a picture at Horie's campaign office in Onomichi city, Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, on Thursday. This part of Hiroshima is the scene of Japan's most closely watched political race, in which the star candidate is Horie, a 32-year-old Internet tycoon who has attacked the nation's business culture, and now its politics.


For years, Shizuka Kamei was one of the most powerful politicians in Japan's ruling party, a personification of the conservatism, nationalism and pork-barrel politics that have characterized it since its founding in the 1950s.

Now, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is Kamei's greatest enemy.

With less than a week before parliamentary elections, the party is endorsing a rival candidate who represents everything he is not -- a thirtysomething Internet entrepreneur and political outsider with lots of savvy and mass appeal.

"Just look at all these cameras," the 32-year-old challenger, Takafumi Horie, said as admirers crowded around to hear him speak at a waterfront parking lot Sunday in this largely rural district just outside Hiroshima. "Elect me, and I promise there will be a change."

Though ostensibly a fight over whether Japan should push ahead with a sweeping set of government reforms championed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the elections for the powerful lower house of parliament are also changing the face of the LDP.

In a bold bid to purge his party of dissenters, Koizumi called the elections after defections within the party scuttled a series of bills on privatizing the postal service, a cash cow with some ?330 trillion (US$3 trillion) in its savings and insurance plans.

After Kamei, 68, and several other party elders who opposed the reforms split off to create their own parties, taking a dozen or so LDP lawmakers with them, Koizumi sent out what the Japanese media have dubbed "assassins" -- candidates with little political power but popular appeal and a shared support of Koizumi's reforms.

Kamei, a labored public speaker who is decidedly unphotogenic, has found himself particularly vulnerable to Horie, who has Koizumi's support but is officially running as an independent.

Horie shot to fame last year when he tried but failed to buy an ailing professional baseball team. He then battled media conglomerate Fuji Television Network Inc in an attempted -- and ultimately unsuccessful -- hostile takeover bid.

Known for his brash comments, spiky hair and casual attire, Horie has appeared on countless magazine covers, is a regular on TV shows and has written several best-selling books. His blog gets more than 50,000 visits a day.

"I think he has a lot of charisma," said Jun Shitanishi, a 29-year-old who came with his wife and 5-month-old baby to see Horie speak.

In sharp contrast to Kamei's nondescript suits and flower-shaped lapel ribbons -- the hallmark of traditional Japanese political candidates -- Horie and his entourage wear black or white T-shirts. In big Chinese characters on the shirts is the word kaikaku, or reform.

Polls indicate Koizumi's bid was a smart one.

A survey by the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, said the LDP could win about 255 seats on its own, surpassing the 241 seats needed for a majority, while its Buddhist-backed coalition partner, New Komei Party, could slip to 28 seats from its current 34 seats.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has proven to be almost a non-issue in the run-up to the election, with virtually all attention focused on the Liberal Democrats' internal squabbling. The Asahi poll found the Democrats may sink to 163 seats from their 175 seats.

Big gains would make it harder for Koizumi's critics within the party to battle him on policy matters, or for the defectors to be allowed back into the LDP if they are re-elected. And while the battle here is believed to still be a close one, a hint of frustration was clear as Kamei hit the streets of this quiet fishing port Sunday afternoon.

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