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Japan's 'weird' PM breaks political mold

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has lived up to his image as an eccentric during his five years in office and now looks set to cement that reputation this week when he visits Graceland with President Bush.
Junichiro Koizumi
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who will be stepping down in September, will be feted at an Official Dinner at the White House tonight.Katsumi Kasahara / AP
/ Source: Reuters

He’s crooned an Elvis hit with Tom Cruise, danced with Richard Gere and spoken of Viagra on TV.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has more than lived up to his image as an eccentric during his five years in office and now looks set to cement that reputation this week when he visits Graceland, home of rock’n’roll legend Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee.

President Bush is taking Koizumi -- an avid Elvis fan -- to Graceland to thank the Japanese leader for his efforts to strengthen their alliance and to express the close friendship that sprang up between the two almost from the start.

“Prime Minister Koizumi has been a lifelong (Elvis) fan. I think they talked about doing this for years, almost from the beginning of the relationship,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer said recently about plan for the Graceland visit.

“I think the prime minister might have sung a few lines from an Elvis tune, maybe the first time they met.”

Koizumi, 64, is an Elvis devotee who not only shares a birthday with the “king”, but selected his songs for a 2001 charity album: “Junichiro Koizumi Presents My Favorite Elvis Songs.” The prime minister appears on the album’s cover standing next to Elvis outside Graceland in a composite picture.

Koizumi will fly to Memphis with Bush and his wife Laura on Air Force One, and according to a Japanese Elvis fan club Web site, will be greeted by Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, the late star’s wife and daughter.

The 'Lion King'
Koizumi’s reputation as an eccentric long predates the Graceland visit, and his appetite for the odd even prompted a close political ally to call him a “weirdo”.

But with an unerring instinct for voter preferences, he skilfully molded that image into one of a reformer ready to smash the old guard’s stranglehold on politics, rising to power in 2001 on a wave of public support.

Last year, he stunned his ruling party rivals by calling a snap election after they rejected bills to privatize the postal system -- a cherished Koizumi pet project -- and led the party and a clutch of fresh-faced candidates to a huge victory.

The slender, dapper Koizumi stands out in Japan’s typically dull corridors of power.

His silver mane of wavy hair -- courtesy of a perm --earned him the nickname “Lion King” and helped make him a darling of television shows.

His aptitude for one-liners has also grabbed attention.

During a failed campaign to become ruling party chief in 1998, then health minister Koizumi was asked which was more pressing: approving Viagra, or reducing toxic dioxin emissions.

His reply on national TV: “Personally, Viagra.”

Later, Koizumi used his sound-bite savvy to come up with snappy slogans such as “No growth without reform” to sell his small-government agenda to a public ready for change.

An avid movie buff who lists the 1952 Gary Cooper classic “High Noon” and “The Godfather” series among his favorites, Koizumi often invites Hollywood stars to his office for a chat.

Last year, he danced with Richard Gere in front of cameras when the actor was in Japan promoting his movie, “Shall We Dance,” a remake of a Japanese comedy.

'Very comfortable with himself'
Koizumi is also a lone wolf, a rarity in Japanese politics where numbers long spelled power in factional struggles.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Koizumi has made breaking the back of ruling party factions’ control over policy and personnel decisions a cornerstone of his agenda.

“He’s fine being alone,” former lawmaker and long-time acquaintance Shusei Tanaka recently wrote in a magazine.

“He’s fine looking at the sky if he can’t find anybody,” Tanaka wrote, noting Koizumi has found himself alienated at recent gatherings of Asian leaders because of Japan’s icy ties with China and South Korea.

While his image seems carefully crafted, some say Koizumi spends little time worrying about the opinions of others.

“He’s not terribly concerned about how others react to him. He seems to be very comfortable with himself, as does the president,” U.S. envoy Schieffer said.