He is a straight talker and a straight shooter — in fact, he was on Japan’s Olympic shooting team in 1976.
Now, Taro Aso, who won election as head of Japan’s ruling party on Monday, is just one step away from becoming this country’s prime minister. Barring any last-minute defections from his long-ruling party, parliament was expected to formally install him on Wednesday.
Style-wise, Aso, who just turned 68, is a major departure from Japan’s last two prime ministers.
Shinzo Abe was a nationalist ideologue who came to power in 2006. He left in just a year, driven from office by scandals and poor health. His successor, Yasuo Fukuda, frowned his way through a series of battles with the resurgent opposition and also lasted only a year.
Aso has cultivated a very different image. He would be Japan’s first Roman Catholic prime minister. He smokes Cuban cigars, loves comic books, wears gold necklaces and has a reputation as a fighter who often makes off-the-cuff remarks.
That has gotten him in trouble. He’s angered China by calling it a “significant threat” and raised ire in Asia by attributing Taiwan’s educational success to Japan’s wartime colonial rule.
But along with the attitude, Aso has a pedigree. Aso is the grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, a giant of Japanese postwar politics. His wife’s father was the late Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki. His sister married into the royal family.
After graduating from Tokyo’s Gakushuin University in 1963, he studied at Stanford University and the London School of Economics. He was president of his family’s Aso Cement Co. from 1973 until 1979, and competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a skeetshooter.
He’s distanced himself from the historical record of his family coal mining business, which used forced laborers from Korea while that country was still a Japanese colony.
“I was only 5 at the time, and I have no personal memory of that,” he said recently.
On the issues, Aso is a dyed-in-the-wool party politician.
First elected to parliament in 1979, he has served in several key party and Cabinet posts, including ministers of economic planning and internal affairs, and most recently, foreign minister.
Aso supports a stronger Japan in dealings overseas and advocates a tough stance in the global fight against terrorism. He has rejected criticism that his hawkish stance would create friction with Asian neighbors, saying recently, “We’ll live with China.”
In the months ahead, Aso will need all the popularity he can muster.
The opposition controls the upper house of parliament, and it’s widely expected he would be forced to renew his party’s mandate to govern by calling snap elections for the lower house. AP