It's that fresh image that Junichiro Koizumi was selling, and the rest of Japan was eagerly devouring, when he was named head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and, therefore, Prime Minister last week. Koizumi is a fan of both heavy metal (X-Japan) and opera (Puccini) who likes to curl up with historical novels about the samurai ethos. After divorcing his wife 19 years ago, he sought and won sole custody of his two sons. This unconventional lifestyle has long befuddled Japan's stodgy political set. "He never paid respect to senior members or looked after younger ones. He was a lone wolf. So to them, he stinks, he's detestable," says Shigezo Hayasaka, a political analyst with long ties to the LDP. "And now here he is walking around, the most powerful man in Japan." So out of step was he with the political crowd that they call him henjin. Weirdo.
How did this weirdo find himself at the top of the political heap? Quite simply, he's the right man at the right time. "This is a different country than it was 10 years ago," says Gerald Curtis, a Columbia University political scientist and expert on Japan. A decades-long population migration from the countryside to the cities means more people have fewer connections to the politics of farming and small business that have traditionally propped up the LDP. Meanwhile, baby-step reforms are finally starting to dismantle the political machinery. Members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, are less beholden to party bosses and more responsive to constituents. They, in turn, are demanding more transparency in picking leaders.
The LDP still holds sufficient power such that its members get to pick Japan's Prime Minister, and usually the chieftains meet in secret powwows to do so. This time, however, rebellious younger members forced the leadership to give the rank-and-file a greater say. The Old Guard was happy to oblige, eager to present at least a faCade of openness after the public outcry over the way the hapless Yoshiro Mori was selected a year ago. They thought they could manipulate the vote while appearing to be democratic by giving LDP members outside the Diet a bigger say. But the Establishment didn't anticipate the appeal of the telegenic Koizumi darting around the country or the media-saturated TV campaign that played to his strengths. The Old Guard's candidate, former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, actually had more to say. But nobody could take their eyes off Koizumi and all that hair.
Now Japan is watching to see if there is any substance behind the image. Koizumi essentially ran a one-issue campaign, based on a vague message of change. Change what? Change it how? Change it when? Such questions weren't asked, and answers weren't offered. To be fair, Koizumi has reformist credentials; for years he has championed the dismantling and privatizing of the postal system—where Japanese have squirreled away more than $2 trillion in savings. But he's no outside agitator. He inherited his Diet seat from his grandfather and father, cut his political teeth by working for a mainstream powerbroker and last fall backed away from supporting the abortive rebellion against Mori led by his old friend and ally Koichi Kato. "What I did then made what Koizumi is doing now possible," Kato said recently. While Koizumi's populism is undeniable, there was considerable backroom politicking to secure his selection. At a plush Ginza restaurant in mid-April, five political heavyweights, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, met over dinner to anoint Koizumi as their man and groom him for leadership. "Our backgrounds are different," Nakasone told TIME last week, "but in terms of ideology and policy, he is my protégé."
In other words, Koizumi isn't likely to turn Japan upside down. Many of his ideas come straight from the conservative wing's playbook. He wants to revise Japan's peace constitution, including widening the role of the Self-Defense Force, and says he will visit a controversial Shinto shrine where the remains of World War II veterans—and war criminals—are entombed. True, he has appointed a cabinet that is younger and includes more women and non-politicians than usual. But it's hard to find a clear pattern: one economics adviser favors aggressive corporate restructuring and repairing the banking system; another prefers traditional pork-barrel politics. The immediate problem for Koizumi is that dramatic reforms take time to implement, and the Japanese public that adores him today could turn on him tomorrow if he doesn't produce quick results. "He needs to have something positive to show—everyday," says Curtis.
Wise is the skeptic who questions whether a new leader can make any difference in Japan. Dating back to 1989 and the apex of Japan's economy, the prime ministerial names run together like menu offerings at a sushi restaurant: Takeshita, Uno, Kaifu, Miyazawa, Hosokawa. A dozen years. Eleven Prime Ministers. Zero successes. The last time Japan was talking about change of this magnitude was 1993, when the fossilized LDP was booted from power for the first time in four decades and Morihiro Hosokawa took the helm. He, too, was celebrated as a great reformer, delighting Japanese with his sartorial style and samurai roots. Eight months later, he was history. Where is Hosokawa today? Late last month, he was peddling his pottery at an exhibition in the Ginza. Koizumi will have to work fast if he wants to avoid such a fate.