TOKYO (Reuters) - An outspoken nationalist and the scion of an elite political family, Japan’s next prime minister, Taro Aso, has crafted an image as a “cool old dude” in tune with the country’s manga-loving youth, despite a record of gaffes.
The 68-year-old former Olympic sharpshooter will need all his political skills and then some to guide his ruling party through a tough election he’s expected to call soon, and help the country weather turbulent financial markets and a faltering economy.
Aso, a former foreign minister who is grabbing the top job on his fourth attempt, has put priority on spending and tax cuts to stimulate the economy, even if that means delaying efforts to reduce Japan’s huge public debt and balance the budget by 2012.
Well-known both for his desire to see Japan play a bigger global security role and for a tendency to offend with off-the-cuff remarks, Aso recently reeled off a list of concerns voters may have about him.
“One is that I’m prone to pork-barrel spending,” he told a news conference during the leadership campaign. “A second is that I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth, and a third is that I may antagonize China and South Korea.”
But he denied that his proposed tax cuts amounted to pork-barrel spending and stressed there had been no dust-ups with Asian rival China during his stint as foreign minister.
“I have always managed to stop short of my remarks turning into gaffes,” he added.
Polls show Aso is the top choice to take the helm of Japan’s venerable Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled the country for almost all of the party’s 53 year history.
Taking advantage of an expected wave of public support on his appointment, Aso is expected to call an early general election, possibly in October or November.
But his emphasis on fiscal stimulus means he may have trouble explaining how his agenda differs from that of the main opposition Democratic Party, which is promising to “put people’s livelihoods first”.
Aso has said he is not considering raising Japan’s consumption tax — seen by economists and some party heavyweights as a potential way of covering ageing Japan’s ballooning social security costs — for the next three years or so.
Aso, born into a wealthy family on the southern island of Kyushu, makes much of his fondness for the manga comics widely read by younger people, and his dapper suits and boisterous charm are rare among Japan’s grey political elite.
As foreign minister, he introduced an international prize for manga artists in an effort to use soft power to further Japan’s diplomatic reach.
Expectations that Aso would become premier have boosted shares in second-hand comic book store chain Mandarake, and the Aso family’s concrete company, Aso Foam Crete.
Grandson of one former prime minister and married to the daughter of another, Aso represented Japan at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in skeet shooting, a sport where athletes fire a shotgun at fast-moving targets.
He laid out his political views in a best-selling book, “Tremendous Japan”, in which he promoted the potential of Japan and proposed an “arc of freedom and prosperity” to help countries from Eastern Europe to Asia democratize and grow. It was seen by some as seeking to isolate China and Russia.
Aso, who ran for the leadership in 2001 and 2006, was again a contender in the race last year but his party went for the softer option of veteran Yasuo Fukuda, rather than a politician whose outspokenness has sometimes led to problems. Fukuda resigned suddenly this month after failing to break through a parliamentary deadlock, the second premier to quit within a year.
A Catholic, Aso has also advocated respect for traditional Japanese values, including the Shinto-based emperor system.
Aso triggered a furore in the two Koreas in 2003 when he made remarks seen as praising Japan’s 1919-1945 colonization of the peninsula. Ties with South Korea are again sensitive amid a flare-up in a long-running dispute over a few rocky islets.
In contrast, Japan’s long rocky relations with China have improved in the past two years as deepening economic ties encourage both sides to try to overcome a bitter wartime past.
Aso is likely to be tougher on China, but has hinted he would avoid visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni War Shrine, seen in Beijing as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression.
Aso has declined comment on the use of Allied prisoners of war at a family-run coal mine during World War Two, saying only he was a child at the time and has no memory of the matter.
Aso also has a record of gaffes at home, having joked about Alzheimer’s disease, a sensitive topic in rapidly ageing Japan.
He raised hackles in areas hit by floods this month when he said that it was good that big cities had been spared.
His wealthy background could lead to accusations, often thrown at Japan’s hereditary politicians, that he is out of touch with voters struggling with rising prices and a flagging economy.
For now, though, Aso, is tops with voters after two short-lived prime ministers who were both seen as weak.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Rodney Joyce