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Meet (Yet Another) Japanese Prime Minister

But don't get used to him. It's a high-turnover job.

by
Garrett DeOrio

Bio

September 29, 2008 - 12:00 am

Elections in Japan, especially intra-party elections, are rarely suspenseful or surprising in the sense of, say, American presidential or Congressional elections.

If you’re old enough to remember the last time which party would control the Diet was an open question, you probably also remember World War II and are now enjoying your retirement supported, in part, by a generous pension, the likes of which your descendants will never receive.

No, elections in Japan are more often rather predictable, generating surprises for folks like you (I hope) and me — people who would read or write political blogs for fun. (Did the ruling Liberal Democratic Party win rural Gunma by a smaller than expected margin? Great! Something to talk about for weeks.)

Or generating slow-burn surprises. Like good barbecue, Japanese politics rewards long-term involvement and patience. Looking at things on this politico-geological timescale, the election of Taro Aso as president of the LDP on Monday and, hence, prime minister of Japan on Wednesday, provided the kind of surprise that causes not a jolt and a “What!” a la a girl in a horror film, but a slow smile and a “Well, I’ll be …” reminiscent of an aged Carson McCullers character.

As recently as a year and a half ago, I would have shaken my head doubtfully if someone had said they thought Aso would become prime minister soon. That was the kind of thing only someone trying to talk politics in a bar would say and Aso’s name would have come up only because said bar patron didn’t know the names of many Japanese politicians. Two years ago, I would have laughed out loud at the prospect of Aso being prime minister — after all, even his own party didn’t like him.

Well, a lot has changed in the past two years. Two years and a few days ago, the charismatic, reformist long-term PM Junichiro Koizumi was still in office. Almost exactly two years ago, the relatively young, ideological Shinzo Abe came to power. A few months into the Abe administration, Aso was embarrassed when the founding of his faction drew a mere tiny handful of lawmakers, leaving him short of the 14 he needed to officially start the faction. Just one year ago, the older, more pragmatic Yasuo Fukuda defeated Taro Aso in the LDP presidential race to succeed Abe.

Last year, Aso surprised many, including yours truly, by getting more votes than expected in the presidential election, showing that, while his time had not yet come, Fukuda was not a unanimous choice and Aso was not a joke anymore.

On Monday, Aso lived up to recent expectations, winning the race with 351 of the 527 total votes, crushing second-place finisher Kaoru Yosano, who netted just 66 votes, and Yuriko Koike — popular with bar patrons who don’t know the names of many pols because she might be the first female prime minister someday — who got 46 votes. Nobuteru Ishihara, son of the cantankerous Tokyo governor, got 37 and Shigeru Ishiba, best known for his involvement in the corruption scandals at the Defense Ministry that grabbed headlines last fall and winter, got a mere 25 votes (which was actually surprisingly high.)

Aso is somewhat controversial, as many politicians are in one way or another. He’s pretty conservative, he’s fairly nationalistic — for a Japanese politician, anyway, which would make even American Communists look like Pat Buchanan — and he’s long been openly desirous of the premiership. In Aso’s case, it’s not so much his policy proposals or votes that garner interest as his sometimes unfortunate statements (many would say gaffes), his hobbies, and, for the deeply interested, his background.

First, for your enjoyment, some of the recent LDP secretary general and former foreign minister’s more colorful remarks:

In 2001, referring to a fellow Diet member, who was descended from Japan’s former “untouchable” caste (burakumin): “That burakumin can’t be prime minister.”

Also in 2001, he said he’d like to make the country attractive to “rich Jews.”

Three years ago, he had a big October, saying both: “[Japan] has one culture, one language, one civilization, one race” and was the only such country in the world, and “The Japanese were trusted [in the Middle East] because they had never been involved in exploitation there or been involved in fights or fired machine guns. Japan is doing what the Americans can’t do. It would probably be no good to have blue eyes and blonde hair. Luckily, we Japanese have yellow faces.”

In February 2006, he upset Taiwan by saying compulsory education, in Japanese, in Taiwan when it was a Japanese colony was a good thing, then upset China a month later by calling Taiwan a “law-abiding country.”

Most controversially, he called for the emperor to visit the controversial shrine to Japan’s war dead, Yasukuni, visits to which by prime minister Koizumi caused a substantial rift in Japan’s relations with both China and South Korea.

There are more, but you get the picture.

His hobbies? He’s into manga — Japanese comic books — especially a series called Rozen Maiden, and suggested that Japan promote these modern, popular art and entertainment forms abroad when he was foreign minister. While preparing for a debate with Yasuo Fukuda last year, he was caught on camera explaining manga plots to a visibly uninterested Fukuda. While it may not be a hobby of his anymore, Aso was once also an accomplished skeet shooter, representing Japan at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

And his background? Like many Japanese politicians, he’s from a political dynasty — and an impressive one. Imagine the Bushes and Kennedys combined and with a direct link back through Roosevelt and Lincoln to Jefferson and you kind of have the picture.

Working backwards, Aso’s sister is Princess Tomohito of Mikasa, wife of Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, cousin of Akihito, the current emperor and nephew of the Showa emperor, better known in the West as Hirohito. On his father’s side, Aso is the son of Takakichi Aso, a cement magnate whose firm used forced Korean labor during World War II.

Aso’s mother was the daughter of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, one of the founding members of the LDP in the 1950s, who was in turn the grandson of Toshimichi Okubo, the samurai-turned-founding father of modern Japan.

Aso’s wife, Chikako, is the daughter of former Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.

Like many a scion of prominent Japanese families, Aso studied at Stanford University as a young man. Unlike any of his predecessors as prime minister, Aso is a Roman Catholic.

Now that you know a bit about the man, what is he going to do?

Well, he has advocated spending initiatives to stave off recession and will seek to renew Japan’s commitment to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, as well as the maintenance of Japan’s relationship with the United States.

All of this will draw less ink than the pure politics to come. Prior to Aso’s election, senior LDP officials began telling the press that the House of Representatives would be dissolved and a general election called in either late October or early November.

Unfortunately for Aso, the expected jump in approval ratings did not materialize and one day into the job, his cabinet’s approval rating stood at a mere 49.2%. His cabinet features portfolios that were apparently doled out in gratitude for support: a relatively low-profile chief cabinet secretary, Takeo Kawamura, already in trouble with financial scandals; the aforementioned, tainted Shigeru Ishiba, appointed as agriculture minister, a post from which departure in disgrace under the cloud of a financial scandal is the norm; and, as minister of internal affairs, former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, who is the son of former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, relevant here mainly because he holds the record for shortest term by a prime minister at 46 days.

With an election looming, the economy not looking any better, and scandals and mismanagement galore trying the voting public’s patience, the LDP might face rough times in the upcoming election. Should that happen, Aso might break Hatoyama’s record.

There’s more bad news for the LDP: overshadowing Aso’s first day as prime minister was the announcement of former PM Junichiro Koizumi, still among the country’s most popular political figures, that he would not run for reelection.

Garrett DeOrio runs Trans-Pacific Radio, a podcast channel based in Tokyo which provides regular review and analysis of Japanese and East Asian news and politics
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