Kenichiro Sato, a third-generation politician, thinks he knows one way to reach disaffected Japanese voters: Serve 'em a beer.
Sato has proposed that fellow Japanese legislators open a tavern near the parliament building so they can mingle with voters. Yoshimasa Hayashi has another idea: He and three other members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, play in a band that seeks to draw people to political events.
Japan's politicians, feeling estranged from the electorate, are trying hard to devise ways to reach voters. They are dabbling with the Internet, venturing onto talk shows and taking the stage in a parliament that was once left to bureaucrats.
"Everybody's trying to reach out, especially to women voters and young voters," said Hayashi, a deputy finance minister in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) whose band, Gi!nz, is a variant of the words "in parliament." "If you ask [voters] to come to a political speech, it's difficult to get them. But if you offer a live performance, they will come."
Japan is a stalwart of democracy in Asia, but its voters are vastly cynical about politics, and generally uninterested in their elected representatives.
"I don't trust politicians," said Kenichi Oono, 32, a courier who says he has never voted. "It's clear they act just for the benefit of their own political parties."
"I see politicians on TV," said Satomi Chiba, 21, a clerk in a stationery shop. "They talk as if they know what the problems are, and it seems as though they are thinking of people. But my feeling is that in real life, it's different."
In monthly political polls conducted by Asahi Shimbun newspaper, "none" is routinely chosen as the favorite party of the Japanese public. December's poll showed 39 percent of those surveyed preferred that choice, a margin of 5 percentage points over the ruling LDP. Asked about the cabinet, 42 percent replied they were "not interested."
Distrust of politicians is hardly peculiar to Japan. But it is unexpected in a society that puts a premium on civic responsibility. Politicians bear much of the blame. A long hand-in-hand relationship between elected officials and businessmen has often been exposed as cash-in-hand. The persistent scandals have convinced many voters that all politicians are corrupt.
The political system adds to the problem. Like so much in this society, there is a rigid hierarchy for succession, in which political parties promote their members to top posts only after long years of loyal--and largely faceless--service. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was considered a bland party hack--"cold pizza," one wag dubbed him--during his four decades of party service before he was given the top job.
To create an identity for themselves, the political parties this year changed the rules in the Diet to require debate, instead of the traditional format in which questions were answered by bureaucrats.
But there has been tepid public reaction to the first sessions in which Obuchi and his ministers were grilled by opponents. The politicians are not accustomed to such give-and-take; the questions were often obvious and polite, and the answers sounded suspiciously rehearsed.
Some politicians are cautiously trying to learn the art of on-air spontaneity, as the public learns to shed its traditional position of deference to people in authority. It took 10 years to get the approval for C-Net, the Japanese equivalent of C-SPAN, to broadcast full Diet sessions and committee meetings. Yoshitsugu Tanaka, president of C-Net, has recently added a one-hour call-in show with politicians.
"I see an interesting change," Tanaka said. "In the beginning, many telephone callers were inclined to talk about the traditional touchstone of Japanese politics, pork-barrel politics. Mothers would call in and ask the politicians for more kindergartens. But gradually this started to decrease, and more and more of the questioners are debating the issues.
"The public is starting to be more of a player. The politicians are very much surprised at the questions they are getting."
But there are pitfalls for politicians who are not cautious. "We must be able to speak with a language that the listener can understand," contends Shingo Nishimura, a member of the Liberal Party in the Diet. But his case is illustrative of the dangers. Nishimura was forced to resign his position as deputy minister of defense in October for controversial remarks to Japan's Weekly Playboy magazine about Japan's need for nuclear weapons and men's natural inclinations toward rape.
Still, politicians have to shed the formality they have often kept between themselves and voters, says Yukio Hatoyama, president of the opposition Democratic Party.
"Until now, the Japanese people have viewed politicians as a distant tribe," he said. "It's important that we talk frankly, like friends, so they know we are not villains and jerks."
Hatoyama wants to open Internet chat rooms and create a "virtual party" on the World Wide Web to encourage public participation. His party colleague, Sato, thinks a better venue to mix with the public would be a tavern near the parliament, where Diet members would be encouraged to spend time every day to meet constituents.
"The small people don't have access to the politicians," said Sato, who runs a pub in Yokohama, for no profit, to keep in touch with his constituents. "In my pub, anyone who wants to talk to me can come in.
"In the political world, somebody comes to you and puts their hand on your shoulder, and says let's go to a fancy restaurant, or let's play golf or something. But in a pub, you can exchange ideas with lots of different types of people."
Hatoyama agrees, and notes that a pub might break through the Japanese reserve.
"Its one of the Japanese characteristics that unless you are lubricated with alcohol, you can't talk frankly," he said. Hatoyama has the necessary prerequisite for any political effort in Japan--a slogan. "We'll call it 'Pub-Ground Zero for Democracy.' "