Foreign Minister Taro Aso looked satisfied on the evening of Sept. 20, 2006 — right after the results of the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election came in.
The day happened to be his 66th birthday, and he got an unexpected gift — winning 136 votes — far more than earlier forecast. Although Aso ended a distant runnerup, he emerged as a likely successor to the winner, Shinzo Abe, who got 464 votes and went on to become prime minister.
“I will work harder to (become LDP president) someday,” said a beaming Aso, blowing out candles on his birthday cake.
Now 10 months on, Abe’s hold on power appears shaky. Heading into Sunday’s House of Councilors election, media forecasts show his ruling coalition will lose its majority in the chamber, an eventuality that could bring Aso a step closer to succeeding to the prime ministership.
Aso is widely considered one of the leading post-Abe LDP candidates for the post. While serving the key position in Abe’s Cabinet, Aso has published three books this year — a move seen as a demonstration of his readiness to become prime minister. One book is about his vision for Japan; another is about his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida.
The latest poll by Kyodo News indicated the LDP may fail to win 40 seats — falling close to the party’s worst-ever performance in 1989, when it won only 36 in that Upper House election.
If the LDP fails to win at least 37, Abe may have no choice but to step down to take responsibility for such a historic setback, said Takao Toshikawa, political commentator and editor of the newsletter Tokyo Insideline.
“Even if Abe stays in power, (Abe) would appoint Aso as the secretary general of the LDP” to replace Hidenao Nakagawa, who as the party’s No. 2 leader would be held responsible for election results, Toshikawa predicted, echoing many other political watchers.
“Aso will remain a key player in any case,” he said.
Described variously as an outspoken right-leaning conservative, an adept speaker and an avid fan of “manga” comics, Aso was born on Sept. 20, 1940, the oldest son of Takakichi Aso, who headed a zaibatsu conglomerate centered on coal mining in Kyushu.
People who have known Aso long say he was the blue-blood family’s “naughty boy” who was not afraid of saying what he pleased.
And he still is. Aso is known for haughty, sometimes disparaging rhetoric, as well as gaffes.
He drew attention last October when he defended LDP policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa, who openly called for policy debate on whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons.
Aso argued that “various discussions” on the issue should be encouraged, sparking speculation that the foreign minister favors the nuclear option. He later emphasized that going nuclear is not an option being considered by the government.
Aso had, however, described China as a growing military threat, and got Beijing’s dander up last year when he described Taiwan as a “law-abiding country,” a remark that came not long after he said colonial ruler Japan’s compulsory education was a good thing for Taiwan.
Last week, Aso caused a stir when talking about the price of Japanese rice sold in China, saying “even people with Alzheimer’s disease can understand” that the price marked on Japanese rise is higher in China than in Japan. He apologized after drawing flak over the remark.
According to Toshikawa, Aso often uses blunt language to pass himself off as a common man, not gentry. This has become part of his personality, Toshikawa added.
Aso comes from an elite family — his grandfather, Yoshida, led Japan’s postwar reconstruction. Aso’s sister, Nobuko, is married to Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of Emperor Akihito. His own wife, Chikako, is the daughter of the late conservative Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
“He was different. He was stylish,” said Mikiya Watanabe, vice chairman of the Japan Clay Target Shooting Association and a longtime friend of Aso’s.
“He hasn’t changed,” said Watanabe, who first met Aso in the 1960s, when Watanabe was around 20 and Aso was 18.
Watanabe came to know Aso as they both were skeet shooters. Around that time in Japan, most skeet shooting was the realm of rich, blue-bloods, especially the Imperial family, Watanabe said.
Aso was always among the top three skeet shooters in Japan. He won a number of national competitions and went on to represent Japan in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he finished 41st out of 68 contestants. He gave up shooting after that.
Watanabe recalled how Aso, wearing a dapper three-piece suit, came to an earlier skeet shoot in western Tokyo in a chauffeured car, accompanied by a coach.
Not just a spoiled rich kid, Aso was already a senior executive of his family business.
Aso kept busy restructuring the struggling coal mining company that he inherited from his father. He laid off thousands of miners and later successfully converted the ailing business into a cement company, which now boasts around 80 group firms in various fields.
“I think he had a tough time then, although I haven’t directly talked with him about it,” Watanabe said.
Aso has kept silent, however, about the widespread media reports, especially overseas, that his family’s mines used wartime forced laborers, including Allied POWs.
Aso was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1979. Given his background as a corporate executive, he is a serious advocate of competitive market mechanisms, commentator Toshikawa pointed out.
His remarks supporting debate on going nuclear is taken as further evidence of his right-leaning bent. Although not in his current capacity, he has also in the past visited and spoken support for officials visiting Tokyo’s contentious war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
But if he succeeds Abe, Aso would have to dilute much of his conservatism, Toshikawa pointed out.
As head of a small intraparty faction, Aso lacks powerful clout within the LDP. He would have to run for the party presidency, and hence prime ministership, only if Abe exits following a crushing ruling bloc defeat in Sunday’s election, he said.
Without a majority in the Upper House for the coalition, the next prime minister would be forced to make a series of political compromises if the government wants to enact legislation.
For example, it would be difficult for Aso to push for changing the war-renouncing Constitution as strongly as Abe has advocated, Toshikawa said.
“An administration (led by Aso) would be, in a sense, a caretaker Cabinet until the next election of the Lower House,” he said.
Junsuke Fukamachi, 82, was an employee at Aso’s conglomerate who has known him for more than 50 years. He has mixed feelings over an Aso prime ministership.
“Of course we want (Aso) to be a prime minister. We can fully understand that he wants this, as his grandfather was Shigeru Yoshida and his father-in-law was Zenko Suzuki,” said Fukamachi, who as secretary aided Aso’s comeback to the Diet in 1986 after he lost his seat once.
“But it’s very clear he would face great difficulties if he ever becomes a prime minister after Mr. Abe. In that sense, we don’t want him to be prime minister now,” he said.