Japan media berate PM Aso for lavish social life

TOKYO Thu Oct 23, 2008 2:22am EDT

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso announces his cabinet members during his first news conference at his official residence in Tokyo September 24, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso announces his cabinet members during his first news conference at his official residence in Tokyo September 24, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso is being accused of spending too much time hobnobbing in exclusive hotel bars, a habit media and opposition politicians say shows he is out of touch with recession-hit voters.

Aso, one of the country's wealthiest politicians, took office in September and held 32 meetings at upmarket restaurants and hotel bars during the first month of his premiership alone, the Asahi newspaper said this week.

His predecessor, Yasuo Fukuda, held only seven in his first month, the paper said.

Aso, the 68-year-old grandson of a former prime minister and owner of a large home in an exclusive area of Tokyo as well as real estate on the southern island of Kyushu, initially brushed off accusations that he was spending too lavishly.

"This has always been my style," the Nikkei newspaper quoted him as saying on Wednesday. "I have no intention of changing it." He added that he footed the bills himself.

His comments sparked anger, coming as the government mulls fresh steps to try to shore up banks and stimulate an economy hit hard by slowing exports.

On Thursday he appeared chastened by the barrage of criticism.

"I think the image that such bars are expensive is a little off. Nowadays, everyone goes to them," Aso told reporters on Thursday.

Aso's deputy spokesman said the choice of hotel bars was partly for the benefit of the reporters who follow him around, but opposition politicians said he was out of touch.

"I think this is very far from the sense of an average person," said Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the small opposition Social Democratic Party.

(Reporting by Yoko Kubota and Isabel Reynolds)

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