In trains, restaurants, coffeehouses - anywhere politics are discussed in Japan - you hear the magic phrase "Shin Jiyu Club." There's an election due two weeks and the Shin Kiyu Club, Japan's newest, fastest-growing political phenomenon, is the star attraction.
Fame came with rock-star suddenness. It was only a year ago that six politicians walked out of the ailing but safe ruling Liberal Democratic party. Many pundits said they were headed for brave oblivion. The rebels, considering themselves too few to stat a new party, modestly lauched their splinter venture as the Shih Jiyu Club - New Liberal Club.
Newspaper polls now rate them third in voter popularity among the six major political parties. Political weather vanes in the media agree the club is the one to watch, as a power-broker in future parliaments between the ruling conservatives and opposition and maybe even as the nucleus of a resurgent mainstream conservatism.
Their leader, Yohei Kono is an ambitious, capable and sleekly handsome member of Parliament. he is frequently named as a future prime minister, heady stuff for a 39-year-old stripling in the Septuagenarian world of Japanese politics.
In December's lower house election, the New Liberals made dramatic gains, more than tripling their representation from five to 17. The advance is expected to continue in the July 10 election for 127 seats in the upper house. Kono's personal prediction that all 13 New Liberals made dramatic gains, more than tipling their representation from five to 17. The advance is expected to continue in the July 10 election for 127 seats in the upper house. Kono's personal prediction that all 13 New Liberal candidates "will win" is probably overoptimistic, but even five or six new seats would enhance the party's influence and maintain its momentum.
In SHinkoiwa, an outer Tokyo suburb, other candidates find it hard to trap an audience. When the Shin Jiyu Club's loudspeaker truck rolls into the area and starts extolling the virtues of fresh new conservatism at a blaring 92 decibels, the gambling parlors empty out. The crowd listens, and applauds at the end.
As the lead speaker, Kono personifies the New Liberals' appeal. His tone it vigorous, but his words are moderate. His suit is a striking blue as opposed to the uniform gray. Exuding confidence, Kono manages to sound like a winner without saying much.
Kono is mining a rich yet philosophically narrow vein of electoral gold and knows it. At the root of his party's continuing success is the central anomaly of Japanses politics: Although generally satisfied with their lives, the voters are fed up with the Liberal Democratic Party that made it possible with uninterrupted rule since 1955.
Takao Kishi, 36, a portly textile trader standing in the crowd, is among the defecting conservative voters: "I believe in the free-market system and freedom of thought. I support the New Liberals very strongly now because I'm sick and tired of the Liberal Democrats."
Kono is the son of the late Ichiro Kono, a leading conservative politician who frequently threatened to leave the party, but never did, and never became premier. LastJune, where his father might have hesitated, Yohei Kono backed his political instincts with the gamble of a lifetime. He quit the Liberal Democratic Party, attacking it for corruption, chronic internal feuding and anti-quated leadership. All were popular complaints.
What Kono promises now is reassurring conservative politics without the drawbacks of a long-entrenched party. He promises new approaches to the problems of energy, food and the examination-ridden educational system, but he is vague on specifics. Kono's advantage is also his burden: He must formulate New Liberal philosophy different from Liberal Democrats - but not too different.
Kono, asked whether he would change Liberal Democratic policies to ward the United States, replies that he would not. Is he in full agreement, then? Kono winces and says nothing.
The symbiotic, love-hate relationship with the Liberal Democrats prompts some critics to label the New Liberals a short-lived fad that will evaporate as the voters realize it lacks individual identity. The other criticism - that the club is a one-man party limited by the physical reach of Kono's charismatic personality - is at least partly true.
Typical of the new breed of candidates is Koji Kakizawa, 43, who has abandoned a brilliant career in the Finance Ministry to run as a new liberal candidate for the three-seat Tokyo constituency. His campaign flyer shows him wearing an open-necked red shirt and running a la Robert Kennedy with his wife and three children.
Lacking the entrenched organizations of other parties, Kakizawa is out to woo the floating voter. He smiles relentlessly and flirts with the women voters.
"I try to campaign like Jimmy Carter," Kakizawa explained. "The Japanese used to think a politician is a fat man with a red face and a dark-suit hunting for money in the dark corners of the Parliament. I want to change that image."
Campaign aides say the New Liberal Club is broadening and deepening its support. The polis tend to support this assessment: A Mainchi newspaper survey found 10 per cent of the voters plumping for the New Liberals - up 6 per cent from a similar survey last fall.