Aso is an interesting choice--he is conservative, even by Japanese standards. Aso "served as foreign minister for nearly two years in the Cabinets of former Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe" Cabinet picks show Aso's stripes / New prime minister aims to leave mark in diplomatic, economic policies, Yomiuri Shimbun Online, Sept. 25, 2008. He speaks fluent English (id.). He is a Roman Catholic, in a Buddhist and Shinto country. Straight-talking conservative elected Japanese PM, supra. Aso is said to be a populist as well. "Aso has a reputation as a straight-talking conservative with a fighter's instinct: He triumphed Wednesday after a seven-year struggle to become prime minister. Aso has also managed a rare feat among LDP members - he's popular among the young. He's an avid fan of "manga" comic books, and has spent years arguing that Japan should use its pop culture as a diplomatic tool."Straight-talking conservative elected Japanese PM, supra.
One of the more interesting actions taken in the first days of his leadership was to seek the beginnings of an amalgamation of the Finance Ministry and the Financial Services Agency. "Aso explained he put one minister in charge of both the Finance Ministry and the Financial Services Agency because it was feasible and to bring the nation more in line with other countries." Cabinet picks show Aso's stripes / New prime minister aims to leave mark in diplomatic, economic policies, Yomiuri Shimbun Online, Sept. 25, 2008. This represents a retreat from the Government's institutional reaction to the great bank crisis of the 1990s, a reaction that played well to national stakeholders and the media, all anxious for palpable signs of actions from an ossified state apparatus, but which effectively served little substantive purpose.
Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto started splitting the operations of the fiscal and monetary policies under his administrative reform drive in the 1990s, when the Finance Ministry came under criticism over its protective measures for the financial industry. In 1998, the now defunct Financial Supervisory Agency, the current Financial Services Agency, was established to tackle the serious financial crisis after a string of major Japanese banks collapsed. Now the Finance Ministry shoulders fiscal and international monetary policies, while the FSA handles domestic monetary policies. Under the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the FSA, led then by Heizo Takenaka, state minister in charge of financial services, set about disposing of nonperforming loans.Cabinet picks show Aso's stripes / New prime minister aims to leave mark in diplomatic, economic policies, supra. The interesting question will be whether Aso is engaging in more window dressing or if he is preparing to meet the financial crisis as its washes over Japan in the next several weeks. "Japan in August recorded its first trade deficit in seven months, partly because exports to the U.S. suffered their sharpest drop on record, while pricey global oil continued to inflate the country's import bills, the government said Thursday." Takashi Nakamishi, Japan Trade Deficit Feeds Slowdown Fears, The Wall Street Journal Online, Sept. 25, 2008.
"Consumer spending in the U.S., as we have been worried about, is deteriorating" amid the nation's banking and housing-market turmoil, said Kaori Yamato, an economist at Mizuho Research Institute. "Since there's no sign the U.S. economy will pick up soon, exports are likely to keep falling at least until (the end of) the first half of next year. Japan's recession is also likely to persist until then." Id.The importance of the United States and its consumption habits of course is well known. U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics, Trade in Goods With Japan. Japan will have to get ready to shore up its banks. The issue will be whether it is seek to save its profitable working entities and the value of underlying performing assets within the financial sector or if he will attempt, like the American President, to protect individuals and entities. on the basis of the ceding of virtually dictatorial powers to the executives and his creatures.
More interesting still, at least from the perspective of the competition for Japan's allegiance between the United States and China, is Jiyu to Hanei no Ko.
"In his diplomatic vision titled "Jiyu to Hanei no Ko" (Arc of Freedom and Prosperity), released while he was foreign minister, Aso wrote of the need to provide aid to countries that share the same values as Japan, such as democracy and market economy. Some pundits who take this viewpoint as an indication of his intention to contain China and Russia wonder how far Aso will follow through on this stance as prime minister."Cabinet picks show Aso's stripes / New prime minister aims to leave mark in diplomatic, economic policies, supra. This policy formulation, published in book form "in 2007-- "Jiyu to Hanei no Ko" (Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, Gentosha Inc.)--has sold 30,000 copies." Book income lifts earnings of politicians, Daily Yomiuri, July 1, 2008, reprinted in Asiathisweek, Sept. 25, 2008. Book publication has become an important element inelectoral politics in Japan as in the United States, at least in the minds of publishrers and politicians. It was noted, for example, that Aso "published a book three months before the election titled "Totetsumonai Nippon" (Incredible Nippon, Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd.). The book has sold 171,000 copies, and is now in its 12th edition." Id. American presidential candidates have also used the form of book publication as a means of elaborating their views for the electorate in a form that seeks to use the legitimizing form of book publication as a cover for political activity. Indeed, such was the view among Japan's media. For example, it was noted that "While serving the key position in Abe's Cabinet, Aso has published three books this year — a move seen as a demonstration of his readiness to become prime minister. One book is about his vision for Japan; another is about his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida." Reiji Yoshida, Is Blunt Speaking Aso Next Act After Abe?, Japan Times, July 27, 2007.
But the ramifications are greater than the simpleminded assessment of tilting toward the United States and away from China. First, the tilting will not affect Japan's pursuit of a fundamentally profitable relationship with China. Recall that Aso participated in the Abe government's overtures ot both China and Russia during its brief year long tenure. See Richard C. Bush III, Abe Foreign Policy: A Good Start But Challenges Ahead, Brookings No. 64:5-8, Winter 2007. The Chinese understand this and did their part to convey their willingness to participate in relations of that sort. ""Premier Wen Jiabao has sent a congratulatory message to Japan's new Prime Minister Taro Aso," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a statement. Stressing that China and Japan were important neighbors, Liu said it was in the fundamental interests of both nations and their citizens to maintain long-term, healthy and steady bilateral ties." China congratulates Japan's Aso on becoming prime minister, People's Daily Online, Sept. 24, 2008. The quoted language and the report suggests both a willingness to continue relations and a warning about any turn in Sino Japanese relations."Sound China-Japan ties will also be of great significance to the peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world, the spokesman said. " Id. A few days earlier the top leadership of China had emphasized this point indirectly.
China would deepen economic and trade cooperation and step up strategic and mutually beneficial relations with Japan, Chinese President Hu Jintao said on September 21. "China hopes the two sides would work together to enhance economic and trade cooperation, aiming at realizing mutual benefit and development," Hu told members of a delegation from the Japan-China Association on Economy and Trade (JCAET)."Chinese president pledges closer economic ties with Japan, News of the Communist Party of China, September 22, 2008.
But Jiyu to Hanei no Ko is likely to have a greater impact on Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and Korea than it will on China. It would not be unexpected to see a greater push for regional trade ties grounded in a common set of core values. And form a certain perspective the idea makes sense. As much sense, for example, as Brazil's attempts to unite Latin America into a regional trading block to aggregate economic power against the great power concentrations of the United States, China, India, and the E.U. The difficulty for Japan will be to show that Jiyu to Hanei no Ko is different from the Greater East Asian Co-Properity Sphere (大東亜共栄圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken) without a military presence. Too great an emphasis in the wrong direction could backfire with jittery neighbors with long memories and greater flexibility on choosing friends.
And its neighbors might be either made less comfortable or reassured by the way in which Aso handles Japan's increasing willingness to project its military power. Yes, its military power. For there is little to suggest that Japan's participation in global anti-terrorism operations will not aid its military operations in the long run. News reports stated that at his first foreign speech, before the United Nations, "Aso will say the nation plans to continue contributing to U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan. He will refrain from promising the continuation of the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Indian Ocean refueling mission to support those efforts, because it is uncertain whether the government can pass a bill to revise the Antiterrorism Law authorizing the MSDF undertaking." Aso to tout antiterrorism policies in U.N. speech, Daily Yomiuri Online, Sept. 25, 2008.
Aso, it seems, has put yet another gloss on Japanese policy that is now almost 200 years old. See Sato Nobujiro, A Secret Strategy for Expansion（宇内混同秘策). Not that there is anything wrong with policies favoring naitonal development and the elaboration of policies that make it possible for states to project power. All states do that, and indeed that was one of the foundational ideas underlying the Japanese approach, though of course couched in the terms of the times. But that history creates substantial transaction costs to Japan in terms of its ability to provide leadership for any sort of East Asian regional trade or political grouping. The same, of course, is true of all great states--the Chinese, for example, mst still be careful in its dealing with Viet-Nam. But Aso is right in the eseence of Jiyu to Hanei no Ko. He is just misdirected. Taking a lesson from his Chinese neighbors, Aso might well seek to project the notions of Jiyo to Hanei no Ko not to Japan's east Asian neighbors, but to those countris with sizeable Japanese expatriot commiunities. If Japan wants to create a system of mutual benefit grounded on Japanese values and trade, it might look to Peru and Brazil before focusing on Thailand and Malaysia. For the Japanese that would make a tremendous amount of sense--reassuring its neighbors of its pacific intent while cobbling together a grouing of states that together would provide advantageous and mutually reinforcing markets for each other's productive capacities. If Japan does not quickly, though, the leading force in this greater economic system might well be China.