Armed to the teeth with blood-red lipstick and a killer smile, Yuriko Koike stormed the streets in a working-class neighborhood here with rapid-fire handshakes and a brigade of young campaign aides wearing hot-pink T-shirts and waving rose-colored flags. One of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's hit squad of female "assassins," the former anchorwoman vowed to take no prisoners in Japan's nationwide elections a week from Sunday.
"This is a ground battle for reform!" Koike, 53, shouted through a bullhorn to her giddy audience. "Let's change Japan!"
Koike joined a star-studded cast of female candidates sent out on the campaign trail this week by Koizumi, who has vowed to resign if his fractured Liberal Democratic Party fails to win control of Japan's lower house on Sept. 11. The women -- now ubiquitously referred to in the national media as Koizumi's assassins -- also include Satsuki Katayama, a model-turned-bureaucrat, and Makiko Fujino, Japanese television's version of Martha Stewart. Their mission: to take out the prime minister's political enemies in the old boys' network that long held sway over the LDP.
The women embody Koizumi's strategy of putting a new face on the stodgy, conservative party that has ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era. In a country where only a small percentage of elected officials are female and women are still expected to pour tea for male co-workers and defer to their husbands, Koizumi's "new LDP" is fielding a record 26 women in the upcoming race, more than double last year's number.
More important, Koizumi, 63, chose Koike and eight other well-known, successful women to run in key races. They are opposing the powerful hard-liners whom Koizumi effectively purged from the party after they voted against his bill to privatize Japan's massive postal service, the centerpiece of his plan to reform the world's second-largest economy. Rejection of that bill in August led Koizumi to angrily dissolve the lower house and put his job on the line by calling new elections in which he has vowed "to change or destroy" the LDP.
The sensational story of the lipstick ninjas vs. the ousted old men has taken the spotlight off the LDP's main opponents -- the centrist Democratic Party of Japan, which had hoped to snatch power away from Koizumi this month. And the prime minister's purge has cast adrift the members of the LDP's old guard, long opposed to the prime minister's reforms, forcing them to run as independents or as candidates of small and newly formed conservative parties.
At the same time, Koizumi's popularity is soaring ahead of the vote -- particularly among such nontraditional LDP voting groups as younger people and urbanites.
"There's no way around it," said Yasunori Sone, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo. "Koizumi is a political genius. His creation of the assassin candidates has captured the public's imagination."
Indeed, Koizumi's daring approach has surprised a nation used to consensus politics, titillating the press and jolting many Japanese out of their state of political apathy. Public opinion polls indicate heightened interest in the elections.
Some analysts attribute much of the interest to Koizumi's moves to change the LDP's image. Few Japanese institutions have been considered more male-dominated than the LDP, which was founded in 1955 and has never had a woman rise to its senior hierarchy. Japan ranks 101st in the world in terms of the number of women in its national parliament; the United States, by comparison, is in 60th place, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (Rwanda is first).
Koizumi has also enlisted some hipper men in his campaign. He persuaded Takafumi Horie, a 32-year-old youth icon and corporate raider who favors T-shirts and jeans, to take on Koizumi's former arch rival within the LDP, Shizuka Kamei, a powerful politician from Hiroshima. But most of the best-known of Koizumi's assassins are women such as Koike.
"Koizumi is sending out assassins who don't look scary in the beginning because they are women," said Koki Kobayashi, one of the ousted LDP legislators. Now a member of a small conservative party, Kobayashi is facing a showdown with the photogenic and sophisticated Koike, who is also Koizumi's environmental minister and speaks fluent English and Arabic. Kobayashi said running against her was "a frightening concept."
As with most of the other female candidates being fielded by the LDP, Koike won't have an easy time against Kobayashi in Tokyo's 10th district, a swath of working-class residences and marketplaces in the north of the city. That is in part because of the corrupt political system Koizumi is trying to wipe out by privatizing the postal service.
The post office in Japan does far more than deliver the mail; with $3 trillion in deposits, it is also the world's largest public bank. LDP loyalists have long doled out low-interest postal loans for pork projects and recruited postmasters -- very often a job passed down from father to son -- to turn out the votes on election day. In Tokyo's 10th district alone, there are at least 40 post offices, and their union representatives are hostile to Koizumi's reform effort.
Koike has a carpetbagger image given that she has never lived in and rarely traveled to the neighborhood -- residency is not required of candidates for parliamentary seats in Japan. Several older women who shook her hand during a campaign appearance this week commented on her newness to the neighborhood. But even if she loses in the 10th district, Koike could still end up being elected. Koizumi has placed her and other women high on the LDP's official list of candidates who will almost surely gain seats if the LDP wins a national majority.
While some women have lauded the LDP for being more inclusive, others have criticized the female candidates for letting themselves be used as pretty faces to lure votes. They note that even now, only 7.5 percent of the LDP's candidates are women. But Koike insists that she and others are a real catalyst for change.
"The problem is that in the past, it was difficult for newcomers and women to be fielded as LDP candidates," she said. "But Koizumi is turning the LDP into a new party."