TOKYO • Japanese lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi faced a dilemma when a group of farmers angry over the government's trade policy and aware of his dislike of tomatoes handed him a bag of them to try.
"Actually, I don't like raw tomatoes but I'm trying to overcome this," said the son of former premier Junichiro Koizumi at the meeting in the western city of Kasai. "But I'll try them later, and let you know what I think."
For the farmers present, it was an important moment of honesty.
Getting the agricultural community onside is the first big political test for the 34-year-old, who has spent most of his six years as a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker in low-key roles focused on recovery work after the 2011 tsunami that devastated north-eastern Japan.
Now, he is being mooted as a potential future leader.
His new task puts him at the centre of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reforms and pits him against a powerful, and unhappy, voting bloc. Mr Koizumi heads the LDP's agriculture panel seeking to sell Japan's participation in a Pacific trade pact that will open up the long-protected and cherished agricultural sector to greater competition.
His tour of Japan's regions - which has drawn scrums of media cameras and cheering schoolgirls - may be critical in securing the vote of farmers in next year's Upper House elections. Mr Abe's ruling coalition has a majority in both Houses, but his popularity has slipped over his efforts to expand the role of the military in the face of large public protests.
It is going to be a tough sell. And it is not just the farmers that Mr Koizumi needs to manage.
"Shinjiro hasn't yet experienced a setback as a lawmaker. But there's a lot of jealousy in political circles and people will try to spread rumours about him when he rises in the party," said Mr Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst in Tokyo.
While he is popular, he said, Mr Koizumi needs to step out of his father's shadow.
He was elected to Junichiro's constituency in Yokosuka, a coastal city near Tokyo that is the home port for the US Seventh Fleet, following his father's retirement from politics in 2009. He is just one in a long line of lawmakers in Japan heralding from a political dynasty: Mr Abe is the son of a former foreign minister and grandson of a premier, while Finance Minister Taro Aso's grandfather was also a prime minister.
The Sankei newspaper reported that Mr Koizumi told an audience in Tokyo in September he was not aiming to become premier, but "a politician that people want to become prime minister".
"He's young and has a lot of time. I hope he can expand his horizons through a range of experiences," said Mr Keiichiro Tachibana, one of four new LDP lawmakers elected at the same time as Mr Koizumi in 2009. "It's important for him to understand agriculture so he can see all aspects of Japan. After that, work in diplomacy and finance, and become a great premier."
He has time to learn the ropes. Mr Abe was endorsed again as party leader in September, putting him on course to become Japan's longest-serving leader in more than four decades. Still, he has taken some hits as he seeks to make Japan more competitive. The government yesterday announced a general framework of policy objectives to help farmers cope with lower prices for their produce when the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) takes effect. The role of Mr Koizumi's team was to make recommendations.
"I want to win over the understanding of the people, make the most of the TPP's merits so that it results in the creation of a strong economy," Mr Abe said yesterday.
In Japan, a single farmer can have the voting power of several city dwellers, an imbalance stemming from shrinking rural populations that has been little rectified through redrawing of constituencies. That is even as agriculture, forestry and farming account for only 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product.
The nation's biggest agricultural body is a traditional, albeit fading, support base for the LDP.
Backing for Mr Abe's Cabinet among farmers fell to 18 per cent in a poll last month by Japan Agriculture News.
Mr Abe will be hoping the Koizumi mystique helps.