Before heading to the G-8 conference in Italy this week, Taro Aso, Japan's prime minister, made several campaign appearances in advance of Tokyo's July 12 Metropolitan Assembly elections. At one stop on the outskirts of the Japanese capital, though, he seemed particularly weary, as if weighed down by his abysmal approval ratings (below 20 percent in some polls). His stump speech argued that voters should stick with the devil they know, rather than seeking change. One banner line? "No one's perfect."
For a politician known for his dogmatism and occasional grandiosity, the admission was striking. Aso toiled to win top office in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Japan's government for a decade. He served in increasingly important party and cabinet posts -- including foreign minister -- under Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe. After his election, he stressed his potential: "I can fulfill the heavenly decree of defeating the [opposition] DPJ [Democratic Party of Japan] for the government party." But by then, the LDP, which has ruled Japan largely uninterrupted for 54 years, was stumbling. It had lost the upper-house election, Abe and Fukuda had flamed out, and the party was losing seats and public support.
Now, Aso is nothing less than an inept captain of an already-sinking ship: a mediocre-at-best politician incapable of rescuing his party from looming electoral defeat and, possibly, a post-election split.
Like Abe before him, Aso is the scion of a leading Japanese political family: He's the grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, the occupation-era prime minister who earned the sobriquet "One Man" for his sometimes-imperious style of governing. Aso is also a child of privilege. His father's family owned a major coal-mining concern that became a major cement producer. He attended Gakushuin University in Tokyo, notable as the university of choice for Japan's imperial family, and did abbreviated stints at Stanford University and the London School of Economics before returning to Japan to work in the family business. He worked in Brazil and Sierra Leone, returned to Japan again to oversee the business's transition from coal mining to cement production, and competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics in shooting. It was not until 1979 that he was first elected to Japan's House of Representatives.
Although Aso is not unique among LDP members in having a distinguished pedigree, he has cultivated a reputation as a maverick that sets him apart from his colleagues -- and made his selection as prime minister a particularly risky decision for the ruling party. His adoration of manga, an unusual interest for a leading politician, is no secret. Also unorthodox for a Japanese politician, he wears his ego on his sleeve. During the 2008 LDP presidential campaign, for example, he insisted that not a single one of his predecessors as foreign minister could match his abilities. He has a pronounced history of insensitive, callous, or just plain offensive remarks, and in the past dismissed or downplayed the more brutal behavior of the Japanese Empire. (That said, since becoming prime minister, Aso has tried to reform. He reaffirmed the Murayama statement, whereby Japan apologized for invading and colonizing Asian countries. He also dismissed a high-ranking military figure who openly questioned the government line on Japan's wartime past.)
But while his historical opinions have drawn criticism abroad, it's his sheer insensitivity to the concerns of the average Japanese that has caused him the most political trouble at home. In the first month of his premiership, Aso spent all but four evenings in expensive bars and restaurants. When a reporter questioned the prime minister about whether it was appropriate given the deepening economic crisis, Aso snapped back that hotel bars are "cheap" and proclaimed that he could spend his own money as he wished. Around the same time, he told reporters that "ordinary people cannot understand the hardships of people born into extreme wealth." He alienated an important LDP constituency when he suggested that doctors "lack common sense." He has chastized the elderly for not properly attending to their health, wondering why he had to pay for "patients who do nothing but eat and drink" and expressing his bafflement at the infirmities of his classmates when he attends school reunions.
Despite his self-assurance, it seems Aso will oversee the party during what looks to be a historic defeat. Amazingly -- considering that the LDP and its coalition partner won a supermajority in 2005 -- the governing coalition is poised to lose its parliamentary majority entirely. It's also expected that the LDP will cede control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the party's creation in 1955. But how much responsibility will Aso bear for these defeats?
Arguably not much. Aso's response to the global financial crisis has certainly been inadequate, centered on economically questionable cash handouts to citizens in the hope of stimulating domestic demand. But though the recession has worsened the LDP's standing in the eyes of the Japanese people, the LDP was looking like a terminal case even before the financial crisis and before Aso became prime minister. As Yasuo Fukuda, Aso's predecessor, said at the LDP convention in January 2008, "We are facing the greatest crisis since the foundation of the party."