Taro Aso: the millionaire slumdog

About the author
Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School.

Taro Aso, the current but perhaps not for much longer prime minister of Japan, is a man of many vices. He is rude. He is crude. He is spoilt. He is embarrassing. All these things are really quite intolerable. Yet they are not that particularly unusual in Japanese prime ministers. What is really unacceptable about this person is his arrogance.Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School. She writes regularly and commentates frequently in leading journals (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, Financial Times) and broadcasting media (NHK, BBC, CNN). Her publications include (as co-author) Can the Dollar Recover? (1992) and (as contributor) The Japanese Economy in Synopsis (2005)

Also by Noriko Hama in openDemocracy:

"Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains" (12 September 2005)

"How not to build an East Asian Community" (9 December 2005)

"Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity" (18 October 2006)

"The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?" (17 April 2007)

"Shinzo Abe: out of time" (24 August 2007)

"The recycling of the G8: ghosts at the table" (11 July 2008)

"Yasuo Fukuda's exit strategy: suicide by drowning" (5 September 2008


His predecessor-but-one, Shinzo Abe, was also a very arrogant man. But his arrogance was of the "let them eat cake" variety, whereas Taro Aso's version is much more of the "let them eat dirt" kind. There was even a certain innocence to Abe's condescension, which pales against Aso's brutal insensitivity. Aso is a playground bully who has earned his position through affluence rather than influence. Or so he apparently thinks.

There is little doubt that the prime minister actually is a very rich man. Mind you, it is all inherited. The Aso dynasty has a history of wealth-creation that goes back into the mid-19th century. Politics is also a legacy that has been handed down to Taro Aso from a previous generation. His maternal grandfather is none other than Shigeru Yoshida, the Churchillian figure of postwar Japanese politics. Yoshida had two spells as prime minister in those years, the second lasting from October 1948 to December 1954.

Thus money and power run plentifully through Taro Aso's bloodstream. Not the ability to read Japanese, however. At least, not when it is written in kanji. Kanji are Chinese characters but they are an indispensable part of the Japanese language in its written form. Teaching people to read and write them is an essential part of Japanese school education. The prime minister attended an expensive school. It is also the school that the Japanese royal family sends their children to. One would assume that such a school would be fussy about the kanji-literacy of their graduates.

And yet Aso makes the most hair-raisingly hilarious slip-ups in the art of kanji reading. Not surprisingly perhaps, since by his own admission, the prime minister does not do much reading apart from his beloved manga comic books. Kanji do not have a very great part to play in the world of manga, where communication mostly takes place in howls of one syllable.

The media had a surplus of fun reporting on Aso the manga-man's struggles with kanji. Yet the whole thing tended to rather miss the point. For achieving kanji literacy is actually no easy feat. Even the most well read of Japanese people are apt, every so often, to come up against a word that defeats their kanji-unravelling skills. The point is that such well-read people would blame themselves for the lapse and try to ensure that it did not happen a second time. Aso simply does not seem to care. He is quite content to live with his own art of creative kanji misreading. This blasé attitude to his own incompetence smacks of the spoilt brat who thinks he can get away with anything and everything because his family is rich and powerful.

Time to grow up

This notion that he can do what he likes with impunity also seems to have been at work in the prime minister's choice of cabinet members. Just as the kanji jokes were starting to wear thin, one of Aso's ministers dutifully provided the media with another irresistible bombshell. The then finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa presented himself at a post-G7 meeting press conference on 14 February 2009 in what appeared to be a terminally advanced stage of intoxication.

Nakagawa could barely keep himself awake, let alone speak with any shred of coherence. He even drank from a glass of water meant for Masaaki Shirakawa, the Bank of Japan governor who sat next to him. The hapless governor was forced to look on bemusedly as Nakagawa wobbled his way through one slurred word after another. Nakagawa himself blamed it all on jetlag and an overdose of pills for the common cold. Perhaps. Yet his drinking problems are an open secret and the performance was a pretty convincingly drunken one.

Nakagawa announced his resignation three days later. But the fact remains that the premier saw fit to appoint him to the ministerial position in the first place. Nakawaga is Aso's closest ally and personal friend. It is inconceivable that his foibles were unknown to the prime minister. But he just went ahead and put Nakagawa in charge of one of the most important portfolios in the cabinet, at a time when the global economy was headed towards a meltdown of unprecedented proportions.Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Japan:

Takashi Inoguchi, "The Japanese decision" (7 August 2003)

Takashi Inoguchi, "An ordinary power, Japanese-style" (26 February 2004)

Takashi Inoguchi, "America and Japan: the political is personal" (17 June 2004)

John Dower & Yoshio Okawara, "America and Japan: the next century and a half" (25 October 2004)

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument" (20 April 2005)

Andrew Stevens, "The Koizumi legacy and Japan's future" (21 September 2006)

Andrew Stevens, "Japan's lost election" (31 July 2007)

Christoph Neidhart, "Tokyo's change, Moscow's echoes" (28 September 2007)

James C Farrer, "China and Japan: from symbolism to politics" (12 May 2008)

It has since become apparent that Japan is suffering a lot more serious damage from the ongoing crunch than initially assumed. That initial assumption was itself false given that the Japanese economy was almost totally dependent on exports for growth prior to the global meltdown. Take exports out of the growth equation and there was nothing left, apart from growing income disparity and increasing numbers of working poor and homeless people. Indeed it could be argued that the more cost-efficient the export sector became, the greater became the problems of displaced workers, since it was essentially by getting rid of people that the exporters were keeping themselves competitive.

Japan is revisiting the unwelcome prospect of a depression which will intensify its many and deep economic problems, amid political disarray that also affects the opposition, and as it approaches an election that must be held at latest by September 2009. As President Barack Obama very justly pointed out in his inaugural address on 20 January, the time has come to put aside childish ways. Grownups do not give important jobs to drunkards just because they are their friends. They do not indulge in the shameless abuse of their mother tongue. With adulthood comes the awareness that there are other people in the world, who might be in pain, who might need help, who might find immature behaviour offensive.

Barack Obama's remarks were a quote from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. Taro Aso would do well to give the passage a glance. But then the New Testament is yet to become a manga bestseller. The millionaire brat's childish ways may only be put aside - or at least disappear from public view - when political reality intervenes.