New Government Teaches Politics Can Be Entertaining; in Japan

Article excerpt

TOKYO - The longhaired prime minister thunders about reform. His elderly finance chief confesses memory loss. The fiery foreign minister's trademark phrase is ''Give me a break!''

In the month since Junichiro Koizumi took control of the ruling party and became prime minister, the Japanese are learning something new about politics: It can be entertaining.

Koizumi's offbeat Cabinet and the controversial positions it has taken on everything from public works to defense have turned normally staid Parliamentary hearings into the surprise TV hit of the season.

Where bureaucrats once droned on about numbers, Koizumi's team seems to relish debate. Shouting matches break out then dissolve into laughter, and offthe-cuff comments make headlines.

"The atmosphere is totally different than before," said Mitsuo Tanaka, a construction worker from Okinawa. "We have a TV in the office and we turn it on more than we used to."

Koizumi took office a month ago vowing to shake up Japanese politics, and has made good on the promise. He stocked his Cabinet with a record five women, including the hugely popular Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.

The new government has been a hit with the public. Newspaper polls show Koizumi logging support ratings in the 80 percent range.

For Japan's national broadcaster, NHK, the daytime hearings, in which the opposition questions the government, also have meant high ratings.

According to Video Research Ltd., more than 8 percent of Japanese households - millions of people - tuned in to watch the Parliamentary debate one day last week. The figure is nearly double the highest percentage that watched during the previous government of Yoshiro Mori.

Aside from Koizumi, the star so far has been Tanaka. When challenged, she resorts to straight, jarring informal speech. She speaks quickly into her microphone, then turns her back - without the usual bow - and marches imperiously to her seat. …