Ruling Party Picks Aso to Be Japan PM
When his selection by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is formalized Wednesday in parliament, Aso, 68, a blue-blooded party stalwart whose grandfather was a prime minister, will be the third Japanese leader in two years chosen by party members without input from the country’s voters.
“Who else but our party can achieve policies in order to address the public’s concerns?” Aso said after easily winning a party vote that had been viewed as a sure thing from the moment Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda abruptly announced on Sept. 1 that he would quit.
As prime minister, Aso will not have to call an election until the fall of next year.
But Japan’s economy is on the brink of recession, parliament is deadlocked and there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the ruling party. As a result, Aso may quickly dissolve parliament and schedule a nationwide election before his personal popularity dissipates. Recent polls show his approval ratings are slightly above 40 percent.
There has been widespread speculation that an election could be called as early as next month, although Aso said last week that would be too soon, given turmoil in world financial markets.
In recent speeches, Aso has advocated the LDP’s traditional cure-alls for what ails Japan — tax cuts and increased public spending, especially on projects in rural areas that are the party’s historic base.
He warned about the dangers of secretive Chinese military spending, but he also reassured China that he would “not view with hostility” that country’s economic development. China is Japan’s major trading partner.
When an election does come, Aso will face off against Ichiro Ozawa, 66, the newly re-elected leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, which now controls the upper house of parliament.
Since Ozawa’s party won control of that chamber 14 months ago, it has all but paralyzed parliament, embarrassed the ruling LDP at every opportunity and plotted to take over the powerful lower house of parliament, which picks the prime minister.
Polls suggest that the Democratic Party has a legitimate shot at winning control of the lower house. The election is shaping up as one of the most competitive in decades. The LDP has dominated political life in Japan, making it a virtual one-party state.
Aso is certain to cut a more vivid, fun-loving figure in Japanese political life than his predecessor, the colorless Fukuda, whose approval ratings sometimes sagged below 20 percent.
Aso comes from a rich and prominent family. His younger sister is married to a cousin of the Japanese emperor. A trim man who favors finely tailored suits, he is a former Olympian who competed in clay pigeon shooting in Montreal in 1976. According to the Japanese press, he used to travel to shooting practice in his Rolls Royce.
A skilled speaker, he researches his audiences and often captivates their attention — a skill conspicuously lacking in the last two prime ministers. He is also Roman Catholic, a religion whose followers make up less than half a percent of Japan’s population.
Most notably for an aging politician, Aso is a devoted reader and passionate advocate of manga, the Japanese comic books and graphic novels that have annual sales in the billions of dollars. As foreign minister, Aso helped establish a national manga award for young artists and spoke of “manga diplomacy” as a way of connecting Japan to the world.
Aso is also an outspoken nationalist, with a periodic habit of angering Asian neighbors with long memories of the Japanese military’s brutal behavior before and during World War II.
He upset the governments of North and South Korea by praising his country’s 35-year occupation of their peninsula, saying Japan did many good things. As foreign minister in 2006, he annoyed China by suggesting that Japan’s emperor should visit Yasukuni, the war shrine in Tokyo where convicted war criminals are buried among the honored military dead.
Aso was noncommittal last week when asked if he, as prime minister, would visit the shrine. He instructed reporters to read his collected writings on the subject.
Documents have surfaced in recent years showing that during the war Aso’s family’s cement business used thousands of Koreans, Chinese, Australian, British and Dutch prisoners of war as slave laborers.
Asked about the matter last week, Aso said he was five years old when the war ended and that in his work at Aso Cement, “I have never been involved in this issue.”
Analysts say Aso has a record of being flexible and pragmatic on major domestic and international issues.
While serving as foreign minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he helped rebuild Japan’s relations with China, which had been damaged by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni shrine.
“Aso is a realist who flows with the facts,” said Masaki Taniguchi, associate professor of Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo. “He is good at grasping what is going on and what is necessary.”
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.