New Japan PM Faces Political, Economic Challenges

Japanese Prime MinisterTaro Aso speaks at his office in Tokyo. i i

Aso speaks to the media Sept. 28 at his office in Tokyo. Aso faced his first political setback just days after taking office, when his transport minister, Nariaki Nakayama, was forced to resign over a series of embarrassing gaffes. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Japanese Prime MinisterTaro Aso speaks at his office in Tokyo.

Aso speaks to the media Sept. 28 at his office in Tokyo. Aso faced his first political setback just days after taking office, when his transport minister, Nariaki Nakayama, was forced to resign over a series of embarrassing gaffes.

AFP/Getty Images
Taro Aso appears on rice cracker boxes for sale in Tokyo. i i

Rice cracker boxes on sale in Tokyo's Akihabara district carry cartoon images of Prime Minister Taro Aso. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Taro Aso appears on rice cracker boxes for sale in Tokyo.

Rice cracker boxes on sale in Tokyo's Akihabara district carry cartoon images of Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Brash, conservative and hawkish. Quirky, nerdy and popular. Those are just a few of the adjectives frequently used to describe Taro Aso, who recently became Japan's prime minister.

In Tokyo's Akihabara district, one manga shop is selling boxes of rice crackers decorated with cartoon images of Aso under the words "cool old dude." The district is the holy land for the otaku, a term for the geeks who flock there to buy anime videos and manga comic books or indulge their fetishes in bars staffed by young women dressed as maids.

Folks in the Akihabara district know that Aso plows through dozens of manga comic books a month. At 68, Aso is a bit old to make the geek scene, but the otaku seem to accept him, says one rice cracker salesman who identified himself as Mr. Nagoshi.

"I'm not sure he's an otaku, but compared to other serious-looking old men, otaku consider him more familiar," Nagoshi says.

Anyway, Nagoshi says, crackers with Aso's picture sell better than those with pictures of Yasuo Fukuda, Aso's bland predecessor who resigned abruptly last month.

Now that Aso has taken over the post, observers are watching to see whether his maverick ways will be enough to break through a stalemate with the opposition party and overcome a flagging economy.

A Political Showdown

Before being confirmed as Japan's 92nd prime minister on Sept. 24, Aso failed in three previous bids for the job. But he says real success will only come in a showdown with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

"When the LDP [Liberal Democratic Party of Japan] as the ruling party takes on the DPJ and wins in the next election, only then can I complete the mandate of heaven," says Aso, who is a Roman Catholic. "Who other than the LDP can alleviate our country's anxieties about the future and about our security?"

The LDP is expected to call parliamentary elections in October or November. Aso's former campaign manager, Kunio Hatoyama, whom Aso has appointed minister of internal affairs and communications, says the LDP can only win the election with Aso at the helm.

"Taro Aso is a messiah, come to save this country and the LDP at a crucial time," Hatoyama says. "I was a DPJ member when they were founded. I know full well that if the DPJ takes power, this country will be thrown into confusion."

But some observers think the DPJ has a good chance of ending the LDP's lower-house majority, just as it did in the upper house last year. DPJ lawmaker Yoshihiko Noda notes that Aso's unpopular predecessors each only lasted a year in office, and he predicts that Aso will share their fate.

'A Caretaker Administration'

"I think a general election will be held soon, so in this sense, Aso's government will be a caretaker administration until power changes hands," Noda says. "That would be a shame for Shigeru Yoshida's grandson."

Yoshida, Aso's grandfather, was Japan's first post-war prime minister. Aso's sister is married to the emperor's first cousin, and Aso himself is a former Olympic skeet shooter.

Aso is not known for being a cautious speaker — last year, he had to apologize after saying that "even Alzheimer's patients" could tell that rice was more expensive in China than in Japan.

He is also known for his tough line on China and North Korea. He envisions an "Arc of Freedom and Prosperity" — a chain of nations that surrounds China but doesn't include it. It's widely seen as a fig leaf for a containment policy. Aso portrays himself as simply a patriot.

"Is Taro Aso a hawk? If by hawk you mean someone who is willing to sacrifice his life for Japan's peace, stability and national interests, then yes, I'm a hawk," Aso says.

Aso has not shown any intention to make painful reforms — such as attacking pork-barrel politics, raising taxes or balancing the budget — in the near future.

His popularity could rally the LDP for now, but observers say the only way to break the current political deadlock in Japan is a political earthquake in which politicians and parties realign themselves based on policy choices rather than personal or factional ties.

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