A Prime Minister with Pizzazz

He wears flashy suits and bright ties that stand out in the land of the blue-suited politician. He sports an unruly crown of long curly hair--giving him a Beethoven look that appeals to Japanese women. He often speaks his mind--to the intense annoyance of his party comrades. And though at 59, he's a trifle old for this kind of thing, Junichiro Koizumi is a big fan of heavy metal music. When the lead guitarist of a band called X Japan committed suicide three years ago, Koizumi called his parents to console them.

Koizumi is also that rarest of birds in Japanese politics, a bachelor. Divorced in 1982 from his much-younger wife after fathering two sons, he has vowed never to remarry: He quips he doesn't want to go through the ordeal of getting divorced again. The new Prime Minister admits to spending time in the hostess bars of the Ginza district, and he has had a long string of girlfriends.

Whatever the details of his private life, this rake's progress has had an electoral payoff. Political writer Hisashi Akiho of AERA magazine says Koizumi is popular with women because "they are attracted to someone who is rough."

Rough or not, Koizumi sports a political pedigree that is pure Establishment. His grandfather, Matajiro, was a former vice-speaker of the Lower House. His father, Junya, served as head of the Defense Agency. Koizumi has a degree in economics from prestigious Keio University. Unlike most previous Prime Ministers, Koizumi speaks good English.

Koizumi was a graduate student at the University of London in 1969 when his father died. He moved back to Japan to run for his father's seat in the Diet. Defeated by 4,000 votes, he then signed on as secretary to Diet member Takeo Fukuda, who later served as Prime Minister. Koizumi ran again for a Diet seat in 1972 and has since served 10 consecutive terms, working his way up the Liberal Democratic Party hierarchy to a senior position in the faction led by late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and then Yoshiro Mori, who has just stepped down as Premier.

Koizumi has longed to be Prime Minister for years. In 1995, he got trounced running against then-rising LDP star Ryutaro Hashimoto--the man he defeated in the recent election--by running on a platform that focused on privatizing parts of the state postal savings system. He then served in 1996-97 as Health Minister and promptly alienated LDP colleagues by advocating an anti-smoking campaign. (Tobacco taxes are a source of income for the Ministry of Finance.)

Indeed, Koizumi's contrarian political stands and unconventional personal life convinced many that he would never fulfill his ambition to lead the country. "None of us thought he would win, including Koizumi himself," says LDP Lower House ally Katsuei Hirasawa.

How long he serves may depend to some extent on another personality quirk. Hirasawa says Koizumi can be quite unyielding when he takes a political position. If he bends too little, however, he could alienate the biggest factions in the LDP and still end up accomplishing little. Then he'd just be an empty suit--though a nicely tailored one.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo

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