Meet (Yet Another) Japanese Prime Minister

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."