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Career official to lead Japan

Nationalist Taro Aso will be the next prime minister. He pledges to focus on rebuilding the economy.

September 23, 2008|Hisako Ueno and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

TOKYO — Taro Aso, an outspoken nationalist and avid fan of Japanese animation characters, was chosen Monday by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to become Japan's third prime minister in less than two years.

Aso, 68, will replace Yasuo Fukuda, who quit this month amid lingering economic woes. Aso won in a landslide vote over several other candidates, including Yuriko Koike, the first woman to run for the nation's highest office.

The lower house of parliament is expected to approve his appointment Wednesday.

"As I traveled around the regions, I became even more convinced that the economy was in a recession," the former foreign minister said at a news conference.

A career government official who studied at Stanford and in London, Aso has shrugged off criticism that he is too hawkish. For Japan's Asian neighbors, his comments as foreign minister brought back uncomfortable memories of the nation's military expansion more than half a century ago.

The grandson of a postwar prime minister, Aso emerges from the same nationalist school that urges Japan to be less apologetic about its imperial past and more assertive about its current global role. He criticized the verdicts of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal and had been a regular visitor to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including some who are designated as war criminals.

Aso has held four Cabinet posts. Supporters point to his determination: He lost races for prime minister three times, eventually bouncing back to fill important government posts.

An often-quirky character whose nationalistic platform has been popular with young and old, Aso is a former Olympian in clay-target shooting and professes to be a big fan of Japanese comic books, or manga. His cheerleading for Japan's pop culture has brought him popularity among many younger voters.

He has vowed, after years of stringent government spending, to prioritize rebuilding Japan's economy, which has boosted his appeal among smaller companies and in rural communities, constituencies that tend to have a high percentage of older voters who feel they have long been off the government's radar.

Aso is scheduled to travel to New York later this week to attend the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, providing the first test of world reaction to his administration.

"Aso is confident in his diplomatic ability, but the question remains whether he will be acknowledged or not by the world," said Takashi Uesugi, a political analyst in Tokyo. "Right now, the international community is coming to terms with the fact that a guy with a gaffe-prone image has become the top leader of Japan."

Some foreign analysts agree, saying Aso's nationalism may stymie U.S. foreign policy in the region.

"He's not always careful in his choice of words and his prior positions have certainly irritated the rest of Asia, most importantly China," said Steven Vogel, a UC Berkeley political scientist.

"And any strain between China and Japan is not good for us," Vogel said. "It makes it harder to forge regional agreements and make any progress in the region."

Aso faces an uphill battle within Japan as well, where the opposition party controls the upper house of parliament. The scenario will make it difficult for him to pass any controversial legislation, including continued support for the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan.

He may also encounter resistance within his government in any economic reforms or in any efforts to pursue a more nationalist agenda with China and South Korea, analysts say.

"He's going to face three very serious fronts -- Asia, the upper house and static within his own party," said T.J. Pempel, a former director of the Institute of East Asian Studies who teaches political science at UC Berkeley. "No politician wants to fight a three-front war."

Referring to Aso's fascination with Japanese comic book characters, Pempel added: "It's going to be hard to be the action figure he wants to be."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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Ueno reported from Tokyo and Glionna from San Francisco.

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