Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The reinvention of Aso Taro

Speaking in Yokohama on Monday, Aso Taro, former foreign minister and LDP secretary-general, and conservative stalwart, called for an LDP-DPJ compromise on the road construction fund, emphasizing the need for mutual consent.

So continues the reinvention of Mr. Aso in advance of his next bid for the LDP presidency.

As I noted last month, Mr. Aso has recently reengaged himself in LDP politics after touring the country in the months following his loss to Fukuda Yasuo in last September's LDP presidential election.

From the looks of it, he has been doing some serious thinking about how to present himself as the man best capable of tackling Japan's contemporary problems. He lays out his new thinking in a long article in the March issue of Chuo Koron, available in two parts here and here.

Unlike some of his conservative colleagues, Mr. Aso appears to have realized that Japan's problems are such that insisting on "growth first" is not a policy, but the absent of policy. He appears to recognize that serious changes are needed in how Japan is governed — he speaks of the need "to grow a spine" in order to make the tough decisions needed to revitalize the economy — and in how public money is spent. While his proposal that the consumption tax rate should be doubled to 10% in order to fund the social security system will draw the most attention, of greater interest are some observations towards the end of the article that suggest Mr. Aso is prepared to make his peace with Mr. Koizumi's legacy.

He calls for regional decentralization ("subsidiarity" to those acquainted with Eurospeak), describing the dependence of prefectures on Tokyo as "inexcusable." Indeed, Mr. Aso lists regional decentralization as one of the three pillars of his Japan Renewal program, along with strengthening the pensions system to ease insecurity and reforming the labor market to strengthen Japanese companies.

Politically, he appeals to both parties to debate in good faith on legislation in these areas. He furthermore suggests that his program is the beginning of a conservative revival:
I believe that from before, the former Abe cabinet's establishment of pioneering constitutional revision, education reform, and resolute foreign and defense policy — part of the work of reimagining the conceptual aspect of the state as demanded by the age — is an important pillar [of the conservative revival]. But I think that if we do not embrace our former LDP mainstream's "politics of tolerance and patience," if we do not stop growing inequality, and if we do not work cooperatively for economic policy that unifies Japanese society, we will not become a conservatism that opens the way to the future.
Mr. Aso closes his essay by presenting himself as the natural successor to Mr. Koizumi. "Former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro," he writes, "destroyed the old politics. Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, entrusted to be his successor, tried to point out a new Japan, but failed along the way. To make the right decisions in the time to come, I am engaged in my present study."

With these words, Mr. Aso essentially acknowledges more or less openly the failures of the Abe cabinet and "true" conservatism more generally. He realizes that any government that fails to tackle these problems is a non-starter.

If his ideological colleagues line up behind Mr. Aso and this agenda, they will be that much more potent a force in the coming battle for control of the LDP. Mr. Aso will have a much easier time presenting himself as the man for the moment, the charismatic leader capable of delivering the LDP and Japan from its malaise. With this approach, which does little more than acknowledge what just about everyone else seems to have already realized, Mr. Aso is a much more potent candidate for the LDP leadership than he was in September, when his platform contained only hints of this new approach and instead suggested that his government would likely be a continuation of Mr. Abe's (albeit wackier).


Anonymous said...

I find the position of conservatives like Aso and Abe on the need for Japan to reinvigorate a sense of patriotism and pride to be puzzling in the sense that it seems a backward rather than a forward movement into the future which Koizumi supposedly set during his regime. Although Koizumi may have had a brush with this theme with his stubborn insistence on visiting Yasukuni Shrine in defiance of protests by China and S Korea, this was not the major appeal that won the hearts of the people so much as the economic reforms he put into place. I finally had a chance to read deeply into Kenneth Pyle's book, Japan Rising. Pyle has a good grasp of Japanese history on the theme of the country's long march to "catch" up with the technically advanced Western powers and the Yoshida strategy following the defeat of World War II. He thinks that Japan is at a crossroads with the decline of the Yoshida strategy in the post-Cold War era. Another book that I find interesting which I recently received is Japan's Reluctant Realism by Michael J Green which also discusses the Yoshida strategy but delves more into a description of Japanese politics including the shakeup of the political and bureaucratic systems in the post-Cold War period rather than a long range historical approach. As you know Green was a Japan specialist at the National Security Council and a fellow at the CSIS and most recently the Council on Foreign Relations so he has expert knowledge of current thinking in Washington among policymakers.

Anonymous said...

The Japanese have spent the last 150 years trying to define and create a sense of patriotism that fits their country. Pyle even states in his book that since the unification of Japan in 1868, the Japanese have tried to define their nationalism. Aso and Abe aren't using the need for patriotism to win votes, but instead as a much more idealistic way of unifying Japan to return to the economic and cultural successes of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. The post-Cold war shakeup basically destroyed the idea of Japanese minzoku (ethnic)nationalism. In Abe's book "Utsukushii Kuni E," he makes it clear that the need for kokumin (country oriented) nationalism will not only unite post-cold war Japan, but reinvigorate the economy.