Raw Japan

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Short-term accommodation for Japan’s Prime Minister Aso?

January 21, 2009

Almost four months after being sworn in, Japan’s unpopular prime minister has moved into his official residence, but many pundits are betting he’ll be packing again soon.

Taro Aso had intended to move in after an election he was expected to call soon after taking office last September, but sagging support has made the premier wary of going to the polls sooner than necessary.

Aso, 68, is also struggling to hold his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) together in the face of newly confident opposition parties, who control parliament’s upper house and have threatened to stall key legislation in a bid to force an early election. One ex-minister has already left his party.

The unpopular leader has ruled out a snap poll for now but an election must be held by October at the latest.

Aso was persuaded to make the move from his private residence — about 20 minutes from his prime ministerial office by car — to be close at hand in case a crisis broke.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso

An outspoken nationalist and fan of manga comic books, Aso was tapped by the LDP last September to woo a public fed up with politics after two leaders quit abruptly in less than a year.

But with Aso’s support ratings below 20 percent, LDP lawmakers are worried that the party is facing the end of more than five decades of near-unbroken rule, opening the way to an administration led by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

It’s unclear if Aso brought much of his manga collection, a large chunk of which is kept at his family home in southern Japan.

But one political cartoon showed him struggling to carry heavy boxes including one labelled “sales tax”, a reference to a policy row that threatens to rend his party.

LDP lawmakers last week weighed in against Aso’s plan to raise the 5 percent sales tax starting in 2011 if the economy recovers.

Economists have long said the sales tax should be raised to finance ballooning social security costs, but critics of a tax increase argue that specifying the timing for one now would further cool an economy already struggling with recession.

In another sign of Aso’s deepening woes, the prime minister faced a rare challenge from an opposition lawmaker in parliament this week — a reading test.

Aso has been berated by media for misreading kanji, the most complicated characters used in Japanese writing.

Diverting debate from an extra budget aimed at boosting the recession-hit economy, opposition Democratic Party member Hajime Ishii held up a white board with 12 combinations of kanji suggesting they might be too hard for Aso to pronounce properly.

Aso didn’t take the bait, but did reply when asked if he himself had written a long essay that appeared under his name in a magazine late last year.

“I hate to disappoint you, but I wrote it myself,” a smiling Aso replied, before debate returned to more serious topics.

Aso’s bloopers in reading kanji when giving speeches or formal replies in parliament have prompted Internet bloggers to give him the nickname “KY Aso” — a play on a slang expression used by teenagers meaning “Kuuki Yomenai” or “out of touch”.

Some bloggers even call Aso “Triple KY” because besides his mistakes in reading characters kanji, he has been wary of dissolving the lower house (kaisan) for an election and unable to revive the economy (keiki).

Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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