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In Japan, female 'assassins' look to slay old political guard

TOKYO -- Armed to the teeth with blood-red lipstick and a killer smile, Yuriko Koike stormed the streets in a working-class neighborhood 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 next 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 last week by Koizumi, who has vowed to resign if his fractured Liberal Democratic Party fails to win control of Japan's lower house Sept. 11. The women -- referred to in the 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 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 election, 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 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 overhaul the world's second-largest economy. Koizumi dissolved the lower house in August after the bill was rejected, and put his job on the line by calling new elections.

The sensational story of the lipstick ninjas against the ousted old men has taken the spotlight off the LDP's main opponents -- the centrist Democratic Party of Japan. And the prime minister's purge has cast adrift the members of the LDP's old guard, long opposed to his changes, forcing them to run as independents or as candidates of small and newly formed conservative parties.

Koizumi's popularity is soaring -- 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."

Koizumi's approach has surprised a nation used to consensus politics, titillating the press and jolting many Japanese out 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, and 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 archrival 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 Koike, who is also Koizumi's environmental minister and speaks fluent English and Arabic. Kobayashi said running against Koike was ''a frightening concept."

Some women have lauded the LDP for being more inclusive, but 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 said 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."

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