EVEN BY the ephemeral standards of popular culture, the cartoon character known as Shishiro had a pitifully short life.
He came into being only last summer, and for a few months. "Lion Man" - as his name roughly translates - was ubiquitous. His furry tail waved from posters and stickers. His cute mane was moulded into plastic dolls and mobile telephone straps.
At the small gift shop in the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in central Tokyo, schoolgirls and housewives queued to buy posters of Lion Man and the real-life hero on whom he was based: the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
How much has changed in just 10 months. At the height of the Koizumi boom, the gift shop had hundreds of customers a day. Today it is lucky to see a few dozen. Copies of the Lion Man 2002 calendar lie unsold on a table outside and, although the Koizumi T-shirts have sold out, there are no plans to bring in new stock. As a cartoon superhero, Lion Man is finished; as a politician Mr Koizumi is looking more and more like yesterday's man.
A lot depends on Mr Koizumi, and not only in Japan. It was a year ago today that he was elected president of the LDP, Japan's biggest party. Two days later he became Prime Minister, in the country's biggest political upset in eight years. Mr Koizumi was an outsider, a flamboyant maverick who captured the LDP with the support of ordinary party members.
He was a fearless reformer who made no bones about the pain necessary for economic recovery. And his early approval ratings - close to 90 per cent for weeks on end - made him perhaps the most popular leader in the world.
At home, voters looked to him to stem the tide of rising bankruptcies and unemployment, and end the economic stagnation. Abroad, governments welcomed a man who finally seemed determined to sort out Japan's dangerously debt-stricken banks. But one year on, few of his promises of reform have been fulfilled, and the self- styled Lion Man finds himself fighting off the political wolves. Under Mr Koizumi, unemployment has touched its post- war peak of 5.6 per cent - predictions are it will climb next year.
Politically, he finds himself increasingly isolated within his party, after losing several key supporters. And the crucial approval ratings - yesterday down to 42 per cent - show that he has shed more than half of his public support. What has gone wrong for Mr Koizumi and for Japan, and what hope does he have of winning back his rock- star popularity?
And why should the rest of the world care? The last question is easily answered. As the world's second-largest economy, decisions made by Japanese consumers are felt around the world. At the moment, fearful of unemployment and more bad news ahead, they are spending little and the pinch is being felt all over the world. Even more fearful is the threat - not imminent, but alarmingly easy to imagine - of a major banking collapse, which could spread panic around the world. It is this headache that Mr Koizumi was supposed to cure, but which he has failed pretty much to ease.
In these times, it is easy to forget what a good start he made. Every Japanese prime minister of the past 10 years has mouthed the slogans of reform, but none has achieved as much as Mr Koizumi. His changes began with his Cabinet: instead of divvying up ministries among LDP hacks, he gave jobs to private-sector experts and to genuinely …