Koizumi media-savvy leader or just style?

TOKYO, Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has won the hearts of many Japanese with his good looks and straight-talking ways, but his rivals charge, and even aides say, his image may be built more on style than substance.

With a crucial Upper House election just days away, pictures of the prime minister with his distinctive tousled pepper-and-salt mane are everywhere — from posters on street corners to television commercials.

His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the dominant force in the three-party ruling coalition, has even taken to selling Koizumi paraphernalia — posters, T-shirts and mobile telephone straps — in the hopes of turning his historic popularity into votes on Sunday.

Analysts agree Koizumi is a rare breed among Japan’s politicians in that he has the intention and the ability to use the media to foster his image.

“He is a leader who can use the media to his advantage. He’s a natural, maybe even a genius at that,” said Atsushi Kusano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Keio University.

“Even before becoming prime minister, he was used to talking in soundbites,” Kusano said.

A prime example of Koizumi’s media savvy as a photograph opportunity with U.S. President George W. Bush at a summit at Camp David this month.

Instead of the regular handshake, he showed off an autographed baseball given him by Bush, and then tossed it over to the U.S. president, prompting him to say: “He’s the only world leader I’ve ever played catch with.”

While Koizumi does not have a media adviser, his personal secretary of more than 30 years, Isao Iijima, handles media relations.

Iijima is known to favor media that reach a wide audience, hence Koizumi’s numerous appearances on television.

In a break from long tradition, Iijima allows cameras to shoot the prime minister’s daily meetings with the media, and on a recent trip to the United States and Europe, Koizumi offered a daily question-and-answer session in front of the cameras.

Koizumi’s aggressive media drive is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, who rarely spoke to reporters and, with his support at record single-digits, was swift to blame the media.

While Koizumi’s popularity has seen a slight decline recently, many polls still show his support ratings at around 70 percent, still by far the most popular leader in post-war Japan.

But many analysts agree Koizumi’s popularity is a result of the public’s infatuation with his style, not his policies.

Koizumi was catapulted to power amid popular backing for his calls for sweeping reform of the economic system and for leaner government, but analysts said he has so far failed to lay out a road-map charting the way to reach those goals.

“It would be nice if those soundbites were a result of the ideas that filled his head. But there isn’t much inside. Sooner or later he has to fill it up. We are already seeing that he is running out of stock,” Keio’s Kusano said.

Opposition parties also charge that the prime minister may be more style than substance.

“He is not a man who has won the trust of the people by implementing policies. All that he has done is to become popular with his style,” said Jun Azumi, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, the largest opposition group.

British critics leveled similar charges of style over substance against Prime Minister Tony Blair for allowing the government’s media machine to inflate, as they saw it, the importance of routine policy announcements.

Amid evidence that voters were irked by excessive “spinning” of news to show ministers in a good light, the aggressive news management has recently been toned down and Blair’s powerful press spokesman has withdrawn from day-to-day media briefings.

Japan’s prime minister rebuts similar charges, saying the very fact that he is ready to embark on the reforms is revolutionary in hidebound Japan.

Azumi, who worked as a political reporter for Japanese television for eight years before running for office, blamed television for building Koizumi into an icon.

Afternoon shows that cater to the latest showbiz gossip — mainly aimed housewives — have replaced celebrities with footage of Koizumi, giving birth to the term, “Koizumi Theatre.”

The Democrats, along with two other opposition parties, last week sent a letter to Nippon Television protesting against a recent program that featured Koizumi in a “town meeting” with 100 women, saying it was biased in favor of the prime minister.

“Television stations should be ashamed of the fact that they reported heavily about Koizumi wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt to his meeting with Bush and not about discussions on the Kyoto climate treaty,” Azumi said.

The blue Ralph Lauren shirt that the prime minister wore at the summit has been selling fast at stores around Tokyo.

But for the LDP, if it means more votes, they are willing to have the prime minister be their posterboy.

“We are willing to accept criticism that we are making a show out of Koizumi,” said Hiroyuki Arai, an LDP lawmaker in charge of the party’s public relations.