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A maverick to shake up Japan

A reformer emerges as the frontrunner for prime minister in a party election Tuesday.

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Three out of four candidates in tomorrow's elections for the leadership of Japan's long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are seated in a row, sporting almost identical dark blue suits and conservative ties, their black hair neatly combed into place.

The fourth, Junichiro Koizumi, wears a light-gray suit and lavender tie, capped by a shock of long, wavy, almost unruly salt-and-pepper hair. His appearance only scratches the surface of his willingness to go against the grain of Japan's LDP - and the system that Mr. Koizumi says he is trying to buck by running as an "independent" in tomorrow's party election.

Tuesday's vote, which will pick a party president and effectively, the next prime minister of Japan, pits popularity against party machinery. Observers say this is shaping up as a rare Japanese election whose outcome is not predictable in advance.

"It seems like the earth is shaking," Koizumi told reporters in front of LDP headquarters Saturday night. "I feel that there are great changes afoot both in political circles and among LDP members."

Just over a week ago, Koizumi triggered something of a political earthquake by quitting the LDP faction headed by current Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose single-digit popularity ratings have forced him to agree to step down. In the LDP, a bastion of cookie-cutter politics in which individuality and charisma are rarely the characteristics that catapult a man to the top, loyalty to a faction does. But in the face of criticism that the move was mere posturing, Koizumi vowed. "After the presidential election, I will not return to the factions. And once I am [LDP] president, I will not base the cabinet on factions. I will also stop the habit of changing the cabinet every year."

That practice mimics what is known in the Japanese workplace as jinjiido, in which employees of companies and government bureaucracies take on new jobs or rotate positions. Like spring cleaning, it occurs each April 1, often without regard to merit or whether the new appointee is the best-qualified person for the job.

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