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Large and in Charge: Who is Taro Aso?

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Large and in Charge: Who is Taro Aso?

Controversy has surrounded Japanese Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso ever since he entered politics.

Large and in Charge: Who is Taro Aso?
Credit: World Economic Forum

The Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which has been dominating Japanese media for some time, has finally reached Taro Aso. The murky land deal, which included a considerable discount to a school operator (Yasunori Kagoike), can be traced back to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie. The evidence of this connection was wiped entirely, as it turned out, from the Finance Ministry’s report by ministry officials.

Naturally, the opposition parties have demanded that Finance Minister Aso take responsibility and resign. But he did not. Even Abe, in his interviews, expressed that he does not wish Aso to resign, for he needs him to stay to re-establish order in the ministry. In a final attempt to take the blame instead of the prime minister, or his wife, Aso announced that he would give back one year of salary, along with punishing 20 other finance officials by cutting their salary and giving them verbal reprimands.

Knowing Aso’s background, this act might seem only symbolic, since Aso is actually the wealthiest cabinet member. Not only does he have an extraordinary family background — his grandfather being the legendary post-war prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida — but his father was the chairman of Aso Cement Co. and the Aso Mining Company, providing him a stable and remarkable fortune. His social status elevated was even further when his younger sister married into the Imperial Family, becoming Princess Tomohito of Mikasa, the cousin-in-law of Emperor Akihito. In this sense, one year’s worth of salary must not be such a huge loss for the finance minister. 

Being part of a political dynasty, it is almost impossible by Japanese standards not to enter politics at some point. Aso’s political career began after working a couple of years in Sierra Leone, joining Aso Mining Company of the giant conglomerate Aso Group, and becoming part of the Japanese shooting team in the 1976 Summer Olympics. Aso’s ancestors played a huge part in the modernization of Japan in the Meiji Restoration, but his family is essentially part of a religious minority, being a Roman Catholic. That is definitely not an advantage if we consider voter demographics, as Catholics represent only 0.5 percent of the total population of Japan.

Regarding his political identity, Aso is not as conformist as one might think. His career took off in 2003, when under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi he became minister of internal affairs and communications. Even at this time, Aso was already renowned for his controversial gaffes. In 2001, he said he wished to create a Japan where “rich Jews” would love to live. On another occasion, he made praising comments about Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan regarding educational initiatives. Since the basis of Japanese colonial rule was the so-called “Japanizing” effort, this comment fueled anger in the countries falling victim to this initiative. Aso, however, did not stop there. His right-wing tendencies surfaced in 2006 when he suggested that the Emperor should visit the Yasukuni shrine, the infamous headquarters of those glorifying war-time Imperial Japan and denying all the horrors that happened in Nanjing or Korea. Due to this connotation, the Emperor has not visited the shrine.

This incident was no laughing matter — but it was made possible by Prime Minister Koizumi, who was an advocate of visiting the shrine. Due to Koizumi’s ultraconservative views, several hawkish Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members were drawn to him during his tenure. One of these politicians was current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who served as deputy chief cabinet secretary then. The three — Koizumi, Abe, and Aso — represent ideas similar to those promoted by the infamous Nippon Kaigi lobby group, which has strong opinions about Japan’s role in World War II. These include denying the Nanjing Massacre, the existence of comfort women, and several other known atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army. These beliefs explain the many distasteful comments made by Aso in the past, such as praising the Nazi method of changing the constitution: stealthily, without anyone noticing. Another time he praised Adolf Hitler directly, claiming that the Nazi leader was bad, but he had the right motives.

Despite the low tolerance of the Japanese public regarding political mishaps, Asōowas never removed from either of his posts. His high social status and his embeddedness in LDP circles were not the only factors saving him from dismissal. His brief time in the post of prime minister in 2008 gave him just enough experience in the forming global financial crisis and its management so he could become the minister of finance under Abe’s second tenure.

In the pre-Abe era, revolving door prime ministers were the standard for more than 20 years. Aso was not able to stay in office for more than one year, either. However, he managed to become such a rooted member of the LDP that today he leads an entire faction. Similarities in their views regarding history, national identity, and economic policies led Abe and Aso to join forces after the major LDP electoral failure that followed Aso’s term. Just like Aso, Abe has focused most on boosting the sluggish Japanese economy, and in that, making Aso the minister of finance is of key importance. Aso’s faction is the core powerhouse of the Abe administration, for it is the second biggest faction, and since Abe himself does not lead any faction, Aso’s provides the basic majority inside the LDP ranks.

Such factors might be involved in the answer to the question of why Aso has not been forced to resign despite the sentiments of the opposition and the public, which are quite flustered by his unconventional and oftentimes scandalous public communication (including derogatory and segregative comments targeting a social minority group), not to mention the Finance Ministry’s part in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. It is undeniable, however, that Aso’s exceptional skills in public speaking — relying on his sense of humor, his love for pop-culture elements such as anime and manga, and his efficiency in the English language — help him in staying relevant.

Some have speculated that the reason why Finance Ministry officials decided to come forward with the story of the cover-up of the official documents stating that Akie Abe was involved in the Moritomo Gakuen land deal is that Aso is going after Abe in the LDP presidential race, aiming to become a prime minister himself once more. But the way in which Aso handled the question of responsibility regarding this issue — cutting salaries and handing back his own — is an effort to calm the tensions, instead of blaming Abe for the scandal.

In September, during the LDP presidential elections, we will see whether the true colors of Taro Aso will help him in positioning himself or not.

Emese Schwarcz is an international relations expert with a specialization in Japanese politics. She is currently responsible for managing Japanese relations and organizing events regarding East Asia at a Hungarian think-tank, the Antall József Knowledge Centre.