Japan's leader may be dull, but he's a doll


Tokyo -- Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's ratings in the polls are poor, but the 70-year-old Socialist Party chairman is a hit where capitalists on the other side of the political spectrum say it really counts: the cash register.

First came the $18 Murayama stuffed doll -- the 2,000 initially produced have already been sold, and they officially go on the market only next week. Hearing the plunk of yen if not the thump of voters' hearts, a raft of Murayama memorabilia has now gone on the market.

The bottom line? More than $500,000 in profits so far for the chronically money-strapped party, and new orders are being added to a waiting list every day.

So far, an initial supply of 3,000 fans, 8,000 plaques and 30,000 telephone cards (one featuring the prime minister alone, the other including President Clinton) are gone, along with the dolls.

"We are sold out before we even start selling," said Hiroshi Imai, a party publicist in charge of sales.

That has caught everyone by surprise.

"I knew marketing something is costly, I never expected it to be profitable," said Kazuo Hanazawa, another Socialist Party member.

The idea for a Murayama brand emerged this spring when the Socialists, reeling from a crushing defeat at the polls in 1993, realized no one knew their leader. "Even after he was elected prime minister [in June], people asked who he was," Mr. Hanazawa said.

Mr. Murayama himself doesn't provide many clues. Vague and politically indecisive, he has said nothing memorable during his first three months in office. Nevertheless, he soothed the nation with a silent cuddliness. He brought grandchildren into the stiff official residence, smiled obliquely for the cameras, and resembled, not coincidentally, a stuffed doll.

The appeal seems to have transcended traditional constituencies. The party's central Tokyo headquarters, typically filled with older men and the aged constituents that Socialists have always supported in parliament, has been overrun by, among others, teen-age girls.

"They didn't know much about the party, not to mention where the headquarters was, but they were wondering around the halls trying to purchase the doll," said Mr. Imai.

"He has grandpa appeal, " Mr. Hanazawa explained.

On initially being shown his stuffed likeness, party officials say the prime minister asked only one question: "Does that look like me?" The answer is: Some do, and some don't. The dolls are made by hand, so they all differ a bit. A special likeness, model No. 00000, sits on a couch for Mr. Murayama to pick up. It has been there for a while. He seems to be in no hurry.

Meanwhile, plans are already being made to further capitalize on Murayama mania. Sweat shirts and jackets are two definites for next year, and at least one idea has been categorically rejected after extensive consideration: a disposable lighter (because it is disposable).

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