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Pressing the Flesh While Bowing, Japanese-Style

In a choreographed campaign, a politician asks for 'dynamic politics'

Japanese democracy doesn't get much respect. Politicians here traditionally have won votes by dispensing pork-barrel projects, not by mastering policy. Once elected, they are more or less at the mercy of the bureaucrats who really run the country.

But here in Yokohama, a port city that is part of Tokyo's endless sprawl, there is reason to believe that Japanese politics is changing. As in other urban areas, politicians here are competing on issues and promising that the bureaucrats' days as arbiters of power are numbered.

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One reason is the country's brand-new electoral system. Until 1994, the members of Japan's lower house of parliament, or Diet, were elected from relatively large constituencies that sent as many as six representatives to parliament.

Due to reforms enacted in 1994, Japan now has 300 single-seat constituencies where only the winner gets a place in the Diet. Another 200 seats in the 500-member lower house will be filled through a proportional-representation system in which voters select a party and it decides who gets the seat.

For a guy like Keishyu Tanaka, a one-time member of the Diet now attempting a comeback in one of Yokohama's single-seat constituencies, the new system means tension. The other night he sped through a series of precision-planned political events, engaging in the timeless act of imploring voters to choose him.

But in Japan, every minute counts. The official campaign began Oct. 8 and will end Oct. 20, when the voters go to the polls.

I spent a few hours on the Tanaka trail, traveling with a Diet member named Isamu Ueda. A proportional-representation candidate, Mr. Ueda is almost assured of reelection, so he has been trying to help candidates such as Tanaka, who are contesting the single-seat races.

Both men belong to the New Frontier Party (NFP), a motley opposition group that is trying to best the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP is something of an institution (it ruled on its own from 1955 to 1993) and has more or less returned to power by dominating the coalition governments of the past two years.

Analysts say the NFP doesn't stand a realistic chance of defeating the LDP in this election, but its leader, Ichiro Ozawa, is promising big change and big tax cuts - up to 50 percent for individuals - in his attempt to galvanize a generally apathetic electorate.

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Mr. Tanaka's 7 p.m. engagement was a meeting in a rural part of the constituency, where farmers and working-class people gathered in a hall used for practicing the Japanese martial art called kendo.

The audience sat cross-legged or kneeled on imitation velvet mats, holding their shoes in plastic bags.

In his warm-up speech, Ueda emphasized the economic advantages of the NFP program, calling it a "contract" that the party was beholden to carry out. As soon as he was done, Ueda headed for the door in order to reach the next venue in time to warm up that crowd.

Ueda's chauffeured car took us to a public hall largely filled with members of the lay Buddhist organization known as the Soka Gakkai, which influences the votes of millions of Japanese. A political party once formed by the Soka Gakkai is now part of the NFP, where it has brought many votes and some controversy, since the LDP has attacked the arrangement as religious interference in politics. This crowd was more urban and probably a little wealthier, and here Ueda expanded his talk a bit, endlessly preaching the need for administrative reform.

The third venue was a cavernous, hangar-like auditorium on the top floor of a municipal building. The crowd listened politely to Ueda's speech, but livened up for the evening's celebrity endorser. Yasuhiro Yamashita, a burly judo wrestler who won an Olympic gold for Japan in 1984, told the crowd that "if politics doesn't change, nothing changes."

Then Tanaka gave his stump speech, attacking the LDP for "forgetting about the people" by letting taxes and unemployment rise, and demanding that Japan get its bureaucrats "out of the way." He reminded the crowd of unpopular LDP decisions and urged them to support his brand of "dynamic politics."

The ethos of the evening was best captured by the English writing on the back of an athletic jacket worn by an audience member. "Believe and tense yourself," said the logo, its syntax a little off. "Imagine your competitive scene - you are qualified for winner."

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