TOKYO, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Three years after suffering a crushing election defeat, former Prime Minister Taro Aso - a one-time Olympic skeet shooter - is back in government with a new enemy in his sights: the persistent deflation that is dragging down Japan’s economy.
Prime Minister-to-be Shinzo Abe, another former premier, is set to tap the 72-year-old Aso for the key finance portfolio, domestic media said, after their conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) surged back to power in a lower house election on Sunday that turned the tables on the ruling Democratic Party.
Some reports said Aso might be tapped for foreign minister rather than finance, but either way was in line to become Abe’s No. 2 man in the cabinet.
Aso, who has held the economic planning portfolio as well as served as foreign minister, is likely to back fully Abe’s recipe for hyper-easy monetary policy by the central bank and hefty public works spending by the government to try to beat the deflation plaguing the world’s third biggest economy.
“What Aso brings to the table is a very good relationship with Abe - they are brothers-in-arms,” said Jesper Koll, director of equities research at JP Morgan in Tokyo.
When the long-dominant LDP picked Aso as its leader in 2008, it hoped the dapper dresser with an image as a “cool old dude” would revive the party’s flagging fortunes. Instead, he led the party to a historic defeat that ended its more than 50 years of almost non-stop rule.
A fan of “manga” comics and the grandson of a prominent post-war prime minister, Aso was supposed to revive the LDP’s party’s ratings and call a quick general election. But the global financial crisis pushed Japan into its worst recession since World War Two, prompting him to try to bolster growth with a “three-stage rocket” of spending totalling 12 trillion yen (now worth $142.88 billion).
An English speaker who studied in the United States and England, Aso has been called “the man with a 1.5 metre radius” for his ability to win over those close around him with amusing patter. Aides say he’s an easy-going boss who rarely gets angry.
Voters, however, grew weary of his off-the-cuff remarks that offended groups ranging from doctors to the elderly, and his image as a member of the wealthy elite out of touch with ordinary people.
The grandson of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who negotiated the peace treaty ending World War Two, Aso is married to a daughter of another prime minister and his sister is married to a cousin of Emperor Akihito.
Aso took part in the skeet shooting event at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, but finished well out of the medal placings.
An outspoken nationalist, Aso - like Abe - wants to see Japan play a bigger global security role. As foreign minister in 2006, he said there was nothing wrong with discussing whether Japan, the only country to suffer an atomic bombing, should possess nuclear weapons.
Aso, who acknowledged in 2009 that a family firm had used prisoners of war to work in a mine during World War Two, also triggered a furor in the two Koreas in 2003 for remarks seen as praising Japan’s 1919-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
But as premier he forged close ties with South Korea and kept ties with China on an even keel. A rare Catholic in a land of Shinto and Buddhism, he has advocated respect for traditional values. But he stayed away from Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.