09/25/2008, 00.00
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Taro Aso, a new course in Japanese political life

by Pino Cazzaniga
The new prime minister, a Catholic, received 70% of the votes from his party, and leads the country's politicians in popular approval. The foundation of his program, bringing out "the energy" of the Japanese.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - It is seen as the beginning of a new political course, the decision of the Japanese Diet (parliament) yesterday to appoint as premier the former foreign minister Taro Aso, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He succeeds Yasuo Fukuda, who resigned at the beginning of September, less than a year after his election. The personality of the new prime minister is justifying the forecasts of analysts.

In reality, the election that revealed the significance of the transition took place two days before, on September 22, by LDP members of parliament and representatives of the party's provincial sections. Among the five candidates, Aso received a majority of 70% (357 votes out of 527). The fact that the electors were only members of the LDP does not reduce its significance. The media have emphasized the fact that the entire nation followed the decision with great interest, expressing their own sentiments, which tend to be in favor of the new prime minister. In a recent survey on political personalities, Aso led the pack in popularity (40%), surpassing even Ichiro Ozawa, head of the leading opposition party.

The new prime minister often uses the third person when he talks about himself. In his acceptance speech to parliamentarians of his party, he said: "I think that the destiny of Taro Aso is the fact that I am here today". His biography gives weight to this assertion. Aso, a Catholic, was born 68 years ago in a town near Fukuoka, in southern Japan. His mother was the daughter of Shigeru Yoshida, also a Catholic, the prime minister to whom Japan owes its recovery following the war. Yoshida was for Japan what Adenauer was for Germany, and De Gasperi for Italy. This year, as Aso recalled, is the 130th year since his birth. His great-grandfather, Tochimichi Okubo, was one of the three figures responsible for the Meiji reform in the second half of the 19th century, which opened Japan to the West. His wife is the daughter of former prime minister Zenko Suzuki, and his daughter, Nobuko, married Prince Tomohito Mikasa, a first cousin of Emperor Akihito.

This genealogical context influenced him to live politics as a mission. He has been a candidate for the presidency of his party three times. It is likely that opposition from the more influential circles of his party blocked this. But he did not give up, and when Fukuda made the surprise announcement of his resignation, Aso lost no time in presenting his candidacy, and won by a wide margin. In the "election" rally, he did not hesitate to announce concrete plans, because he understood that the people wanted a decisive leader at the head of a party that would have the vitality to govern. It was the right intuition at the right time. "I recall clearly", he said, "that my grandfather, who worked on the front lines for the reconstruction of the country following the war, used to say: 'The energy of the Japanese is enormous. The Japanese have a latent power'". Bringing out this "latent power" is the foundation of his political program.

This has also been understood by the members of important factors of the LDP, who have hitched themselves to his wagon. It is likely that Fukuda's resignation, denounced by many as an irresponsible act, was motivated by the same intuition. He prepared the way for Aso.

Aso, a committed nonconformist, uses blunt language and sometimes falls into gaffes. But, observes Hideo Otake, a professor of political science, "The tendency to express himself directly, at the risk of creating unpleasant reactions, does not necessarily make him unpopular . . . Instead, this defect probably wins him the affection of the people who distrust politicians who do not show their true colors".

Contrary to expectations, the promotion of the "nationalist" Aso to prime minister has not prompted serious negative reactions from Japan's two big neighbors, China and South Korea. "Good relations between China and Japan are in the interest of both countries, and of both peoples", said a spokesman for the Chinese foreign minister. "We hope to unite our efforts with those of Japan, to develop deep strategic relations of mutual interest". And in Seoul, a spokesman for the government emphasized that Aso "was a foreign minister with a pragmatic style, who emphasizes mutual interests".

But the most serious problems that Aso must face are those of domestic politics. In order to resolve these, it seems that there is no other way than the dissolution of parliament and early elections. "My destiny", he told members of his party, "will be realized when we win the general election. I will fight the battle at the helm of the party". It will not be an easy challenge.

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