‘Manga’ fans have been won over but what about the rest of Japan?

by Reiji Yoshida

A curious thing happened to the stock market when Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced Sept. 1 his intention to step down: Shares in “manga”-related companies surged.

Shares in major comic book store Mandarake Inc., which also sells secondhand animation-related merchandise, shot to the ¥50,000 limit.

The reason? Stock traders immediately thought of Taro Aso, a well-known manga enthusiast and champion of the nation’s manga and animation culture, as the most likely candidate to be the next prime minister.

Indeed, lawmakers took notice of Aso as a prospective president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after his legendary speech in Tokyo’s Akihabara district in September 2006, which drew the attention of young manga buffs.

During that appearance in the mecca of young animation and comic book enthusiasts, Aso addressed thousands of passersby with a skillful speech discussing the power of Japanese pop culture around in the world.

“When asked about my good points, I used to answer that I’m popular among geisha and old ladies,” Aso wrote in his book published last year.

“(But in 2006) I discovered a new aspect of me, which I myself hadn’t noticed,” he wrote, touching on his apparent appeal to young people, who generally are thought to have little interest in politics.

Aso’s love for comic books is now a fixture of his image. He reportedly reads about 10 manga magazines a week, a pace he kept up even during his busy days as telecommunications and internal affairs minister and LDP secretary general.

Famously sarcastic, Aso often skewers reporters from the major media outlets at news conferences, to the delight of young people who keep abreast of events on 2channel, Japan’s largest Internet forum.

Thanks to his appeal among the young and his good speaking skills, many in the LDP are pinning the party’s hopes in the next Lower House election on Aso.

The general public, however, has reacted less favorably than expected.

Most TV news programs reacted coolly to the LDP presidential race, which Aso won Monday on his way to becoming the next prime minister.

Fuji TV’s morning news show “Toku-dane!” monitored all of the national TV news and gossip shows over the past week and found that the LDP presidential election was featured as the top news story only once.

“At the time of (former Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi’s Lower House election (in 2005), we got good viewer ratings when we covered the election. But this time, we can’t get good ratings even with a lot of coverage,” popular newscaster Tomoaki Ogura of “Toku-dane!” said Monday.

Speculation has been rife that the next prime minister will soon dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election as early as Oct. 26. The launch of a new Cabinet usually boosts support rates and would benefit the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc if an election is held immediately.

Many voters believe the next Cabinet is likely to be short-lived.

“(The LDP race) is meaningless because the Lower House will be dissolved in one month anyway,” read an anonymous message posted Monday on 2channel.

Aso may realize that the way ahead for his administration may be rockier than expected.

At a news conference Sept. 12, Aso said he would decide when to dissolve the Lower House only after monitoring various factors, including the support rate for the new Cabinet in media polls.