New Japan PM Faces Political, Economic Challenges Many are watching to see whether Taro Aso, Japan's new prime minister, can break through a tough political stalemate and overcome a flagging economy. The tough-line Aso is popular, but critics note that his party has seen a series of short-term leaders.
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New Japan PM Faces Political, Economic Challenges

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New Japan PM Faces Political, Economic Challenges

New Japan PM Faces Political, Economic Challenges

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I am Alex Chadwick. Coming up, Chef anxiety, waiting to read your restaurant review is a lot like waiting for your report card. First, brash, conservative, hawkish, or quirky, nerdy, popular, these are terms used to describe Japan's new prime minister, Taro Aso.

This is difficult job even in normal times which these aren't. Mr. Aso got the job a month ago, because his predecessor quit. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN: Tokyo's Akihabara district is the holy land for the otaku, a term for the geeks who flock here to buy animated videos and manga comic books, or indulged their fetishes in bars staffed by young women dressed as maids. One manga shop is selling boxes of rice crackers.

They're decorated with cartoon images of Taro Aso under the words "cool old dude." Folks here know that Aso plows through dozens of manga comic books a month. At 68, Aso is a little bit old to make the geek scene, but the otakus seem to accept him. So says one rice cracker salesman who identified himself as Mr. Nagoshi.

Mr. NAGOSHI: (Through translator) I am not sure he's an otaku. But compared to other serious-looking old men, otaku consider him more familiar.

KUHN: 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.

Unidentified Man: (Nihongo speaking)

KUHN: Before being confirmed as Japan's 92nd prime minister on September 24, Aso failed in three previous bids for the job. He said that real success will only come in a showdown with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Prime Minister TARO ASO (Japan): (Through Translator) When the LDP as the ruling party takes on the DPJ and wins in the next election, only then can I complete the mandate of heaven. Who other than the LDP our country's anxieties about the future and about our security?

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

Mr. KUNIO HATOYAMA (Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication): Taro Aso is a messiah, who has come to save this country and the LDP at a crucial time. 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.

KUHN: 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.

Mr. YOSHIHIKO NODA (DPJ Lawmaker): (Nihongo speaking)

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

Aso's grandfather, Shigeru Yoshid, was Japan's first post-war prime minister. His sister is married to the emperor's first cousin. He himself is a Roman Catholic and 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.

Prime Minister ASO: (Through Translator): 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 interest, then yes, I'm a hawk.

KUHN: Aso has not shown any intention of making 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 their policy choices. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And we've got more in a moment on Day to Day.

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