Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be the face of the new government led by Liberal Democratic Party, but Finance Minister Taro Aso is also a force in the LDP to be reckoned with.
In fact, only a few politicians today can claim to have more power, experience or flair than the 72-year-old.
Following are some questions and answers regarding the dapper finance chief:
What is Aso’s family background?
While hereditary politics is often frowned upon, it is merely a way of life for the blue-blooded Aso clan.
Aso’s grandfather, Shigeru Yoshida, was prime minister during Japan’s formative years after its World War II defeat. His great-grandfather, Takichi, was a Lower House representative, while his great-great-grandfather was Toshimichi Okubo, who played a key role in the Meiji Restoration. Aso’s father, Takakichi, was also a Diet member representing Fukuoka.
Aso’s ancestors played key roles in the formation of modern Japan. But even if Aso had chosen not to follow in their political footsteps, he certainly would not be wanting of title or prestige.
The family industrial conglomerate in Fukuoka, managed today by Taro Aso’s younger brother, Yutaka, includes about 70 companies, ranging from hospitals and cement-makers to colleges and even a golf course. The group also once ran a bank, a coal mine, a railway and a power company.
Aso’s sister is married to Emperor Akihito’s cousin, giving him ties to the Imperial family.
How much power does Aso wield today?
Abe appointed Aso to several positions because they appear to be on the same page in terms of economic policy, among other reasons.
Besides being finance minister, Aso is also the head of the Financial Services Agency and vice prime minister.
The extra posts put a few more feathers in Aso’s cap.
Aso has already been prime minister, foreign minister, internal affairs minister and state minister in charge of economic policy. He has also been LDP secretary general and heads his own faction in the party.
What key factor brought Aso back into a position of power?
In a rebellious move, Aso basically backed Abe’s successful second push to become LDP president in September. When the party trounced the Democratic Party of Japan in the December general election, he and Abe were on top.
Aso was the last prime minister the LDP put up before the DPJ rode a wave of discontent with the then long-ruling party. He kept a relatively low profile during the conservative party’s three-year exile in the opposition.
The LDP presidential election in September became a close contest after incumbent Sadakazu Tanigaki decided not to run. Aso took that chance to quickly attack Nobuteru Ishihara, who was considered a leading contender, for what appeared to be a hierarchical feud.
“It goes against my beliefs” that Ishihara, who was secretary general under Tanigaki, shoved his former boss out of the way and decided to run himself in the race, Aso said, throwing his support behind Abe.
What are some of Aso’s economic and political beliefs?
Abe’s advocacy of massive government spending on public works projects to juice the economy has recently been dubbed “Abenomics,” and Aso is fully on board — at least for now.
In fact, while the Abe administration agreed on a ¥13.1 trillion supplementary budget earlier this month, it was only the second-largest ever. The biggest was put forward by Aso during his short-lived stint as prime minister in 2009, when a ¥13.9 trillion extra budget was passed to deal with the global financial crisis ushered in by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Aso and Abe also share hawkish views on foreign policy.
Aso soured ties with other parts of Asia during his years as foreign minister between 2005 and 2007 “by praising the achievements of prewar Japanese colonialism, justifying wartime atrocities and portraying China as a dangerous military threat,” The New York Times wrote in 2008.
How did he form his political beliefs?
Shigeru Yoshida appears to have had a huge influence.
In the book “Sofu Yoshida Shigeru no Ryugi” (“The Lessons Grandpa Shigeru Yoshida Has Taught Us”), written in 2000, Aso touches on his late grandfather’s legacy, including his financial policies.
“Shigeru Yoshida borrowed lots of money from the United States right after the war,” Aso wrote, noting his grandfather didn’t think twice about borrowing in order to rebuild Japan.
“It is better to have no debts. If it is necessary, one shouldn’t hesitate,” Aso wrote of the lesson learned from Yoshida.
Aso also wrote that he borrowed substantial sums when he headed a family-run cement company in Fukuoka before turning to politics. “When one judges that it is necessary to spend (money), then go ahead and get a huge loan and don’t be hesitant about using it.”
Like his grandfather, Aso is also an avid cigar smoker.
Has Aso ever suffered any political setbacks?
Aso was the face of the LDP when the long-ruling party lost big in the 2009 general election and the DPJ came to power.
Many of his problems stemmed from the nepotism in the Cabinet, where he installed friends whose gaffes and mishaps pulled him down.
“All of the candidates did their best, but I am, once again, sensing my own shortcomings,” Aso said after his party’s defeat. “I believe I have to take responsibility,” he added, and immediately stepped down as LDP president and prime minister.
Critics then pointed out that the LDP needed to reinvent itself after being in power for almost all of the postwar era. The party needed to end its dependency on bureaucrats in terms of making policy, pundits said.
Has Aso been involved in any controversies?
Aso’s repeated gaffes in 2008 in mispronouncing kanji became the target of media criticism, along with a family-run coal mine in Kyushu that forced prisoners of war to be laborers.
As prime minister, he mispronounced “mizou” (unprecedented) as “mizo-yu,” a nonword, and later read the word “hinpan” (frequent) as “hanzatsu” (complicated). He also misread “tou-shu” (follows) as “fu-shu” (stench) during a speech.
Aso was in initial denial over the slave labor allegations that began swirling in 2006 until the government provided written documents that showed his family had approximately 300 Australian, British and Dutch POWs working his family’s coal mine. Many relatives of the victims have continued to demand an apology and compensation from Aso.
What is Aso like in person?
“I’ve been written about as a fan of manga, ‘anime’ and ‘otaku’ (geeks) by the media. I’m not sure if that is true, but I do like manga,” Aso wrote in his book “Totetsumonai Nippon” (“Stupendous Japan”). He has repeatedly said Japan should be proud of the culture. The hobby has helped Aso gain a fan base among young voters, and his speeches in Akihabara, Tokyo’s geek mecca, are often greeted with cheers.
Aso also has an athletic past, having competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics in skeet shooting.
Despite his kanji gaffes, Aso is widely considered a smooth speaker with wit and humor. Following a technical problem with an interpreter’s microphone channel during his speech at the U.N. in September 2008, he quickly stopped his dialogue, looked up at the audience and said this “is not a Japanese machine, I think.”
As he writes in his book “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” Aso does not have any trouble speaking in public or to the media. Most Cabinet members would often handle interviews by reading from prepared answers. But during an interview with The Japan Times and other media outlets in December, Aso did not rely on cheat sheets and continued to speak his mind well beyond the scheduled time.
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