Murray Sayle

A personable, middle-aged woman, humiliated beyond bearing, bursts into tears. Her boss reacts with a crude male-chauvinist taunt, and fires her. Their tiff starts a scandal and stalls a nation’s economic recovery, maybe the world’s. A villain is arrested, more run for cover. This is the Makiko and Junichiro Show, and it has kept the Japanese population glued to its TV screens most of this year, pausing only for a midsummer break. The slot is due to reopen any minute now and, like all good soap operas, it’s set to run and run. Even up in our little mountain village, my £150-a-year licence, cosy sofa and bowl of rice crackers give me the reassuring feeling that I really know what’s going on in Japan.

The casting can only be called inspired. Playing the female lead has been Makiko Tanaka, 58, the former Foreign Minister, mother of three and only daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s most admired, reviled and powerful Prime Minister of the postwar years, a force in Japanese politics until he died in 1993 (still appealing a prison sentence for taking a $2 million bribe from Lockheed). Makiko Tanaka freely concedes that she would have had no chance of getting into the Japanese Parliament nine years ago if she had not been her father’s daughter. But once in Tokyo she quickly became a political star in her own right, thanks to her gift for TV. Some 99 per cent of Japanese homes have colour sets – the densest diffusion on our TV-soused planet – and Japan’s Parliament is covered unflinchingly face-to-lens: the offhand-remark writers, image sculptors and spokespersons who cocoon the politicians of more prudent democracies have yet to make an impact. TV crews stalk the corridors of power, hunting soundbites. Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast in real time, with question sessions, modelled on the venerable British original, jump-cutting from Q to A to Q. Japanese national politics are as entertainingly unreal as a TV reality show. Before she was driven into the wilderness Tanaka was TV’s star of stars.

She has won the Best Smile of the Year and Executive Fashion awards. She can think on her feet and speaks in forthright, easy to follow Japanese (and similar English – she went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia). On screen and off, she retains the common touch made famous by her father, son of a bankrupt horse-dealer, who left school at 13. Tanaka père was one of the first Japanese politicians to scent the humanising potential of television, singing Japanese folk songs in a statesman’s suit and a pair of rice farmer’s clogs. We viewers were delighted. After his death, his daughter, an obscure housewife, stumped her father’s old stronghold in jeans and T-shirt and scored 90 per cent of the vote. She has dressed more stylishly for Parliamentary appearances, and is no less eye-catching among the drab ranks of the po-faced, tongue-tied run of Japanese politicians.

The image of the male lead, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, owes more to artifice. A trim 60-year-old, he has neither Makiko’s mobile face nor her quick wit, but he compensates with a trademark hairdo like no other on Japanese screens. As a young man, he had long, straight black hair, but the Koizumi of recent years sports a permanent-waved, steel-grey mane covering his ears and tumbling down to his collar, the inspiration of Teruo Nakagomi, a trendy hair stylist in his constituency. Koizumi complements his attention-grabbing coiffure with light-toned suits, ranging from summer casual to a candy-striped outfit he wears with a red rosette for visiting schools, and a collection of neckties variously described as ‘bright’, ‘loud’ or ‘vulgar’. His face is oddly mask-like but his movements, as seen on TV, are lithe: he sprints to the podium to answer questions and lopes from office to office along the camera-trapped corridors of the Tokyo Parliament, waving to the electronic electorate and tossing soundbites over his shoulder to the panting posse of reporters struggling to keep up with him. Son and grandson of politicians, Koizumi had much the same name recognition in his family constituency as Tanaka has in hers, though suburban Yokohama doesn’t often make it onto national TV. Elected at 30 on his family name, he had, until last year, spent almost three decades in Parliament, but had never advanced further than Minister for Posts and Telecommunications, for Health and for Welfare. Then he had his breakthrough, rather like an understudy who goes on at short notice, outplays the lead and takes over top billing, to rave reviews. It was pure Survivor.

True, Koizumi had an easy act to follow. His predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, a ponderous, bull-necked former college footballer – Tanaka has called him ‘Fatso’ – was the most wooden Prime Minister of recent Japanese history, certainly of the electronic era. Mori was widely known to owe his position to a classic backroom deal within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power, with one brief interregnum in the early 1990s, since 1955, presiding first over Japan’s astonishing recovery from the lost war and then its long, mysterious economic stagnation, and racked by periodic scandals ever since Lockheed engulfed the elder Tanaka in 1974. In office Mori was a man of few words, many of them embarrassing gaffes, like his assertion that Japan is ‘a land of the gods with the Emperor at the centre’ – a World War Two slogan which alarmed the country’s Asian neighbours and more than a few modern-minded Japanese as well. With an election looming, Mori’s approval rating down to 10 per cent, the economy still sagging and three million unemployed, the LDP, as it usually does at the bottom of fortune’s cycle, dumped its lustreless leader in another backroom deal, hoping for a successor who could at least be plausibly billed as a new broom.

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