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Gaffes put Japan's Aso under fire

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso (file image)
Taro Aso's sharp tongue is causing him considerable trouble

Less than three months after taking office, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso is watching his poll numbers plummet.

The latest figures, from four separate polls, put his approval rating between 21 and 25.5%, down at least 15 points from November.

This is definitely not what the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had in mind when they chose him to replace Yasuo Fukuda in September.

The charismatic Mr Aso - Japan's fourth prime minister in three years - was meant to give the party enough of a bounce to call and win an election.

Instead public confidence in him is in freefall. His popularity is lower than that of both Mr Fukuda and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, when they stepped down.

There are several reasons for this.

Taro Aso took on the party leadership when the LDP was already haemorrhaging support. The economy is in recession and he has dithered over the introduction of a stimulus package.

To make matters worse, opposition control of the upper house has caused parliamentary deadlock.

But part of the problem is the man himself, or rather, his mouth. A stream of gaffes has led many to reconsider his suitability to lead the nation.

He's got a flippancy that's quite amusing for some
Dr Sarah Hyde

He had, wrote one journalist in the Asahi newspaper, "made so many verbal slips that we need a list to keep track".

In recent months, Mr Aso has accused doctors of lacking common sense, criticised parents and made contradictory policy statements.

His most recent target was the "feeble" elderly - a group whose support is vital to the ailing LDP.

Why, Mr Aso asked, should he have to pay taxes for those who "just eat and drink and make no effort".

Public anger forced top government spokesman Takeo Kawamura into a clarification. The prime minister had wanted to stress that pensioners should take an active role in maintaining their health, he said.

"It would be better if I did not have to explain [the comments]," he added. "But it's part of his character and there may be various comments from now on, and it's my job to make efforts to let everyone understand his real intention."

'Flippancy'

Taro Aso is not alone; there is an established tradition of gaffes from Japan's leading lawmakers.

Almost as soon as Mr Aso took office, his tourism minister, Nariaki Nakayama, had to resign after calling Japan an "ethnically homogeneous" country that did not like foreigners.

Shinzo Abe's cabinet was plagued by ill-judged comments. One of the most high-profile was when his health minister called women "birth-giving machines" and appeared to blame them for the low birth rate.

By far the most notorious plain-speaker, however, was Yoshiro Mori, prime minister briefly between 2000 and 2001.

He joked about Aids, said the US was full of "gangsters" and offended the entire city of Osaka by calling it a "spittoon". After a few months in office, bureaucrats reportedly made him speak only from cue cards.

Some of these controversial remarks do resonate with voters, according to Dr Sarah Hyde, an expert in Japanese politics from the University of Kent. When they are directed towards outsiders, such as foreigners, they cause few problems, she says.

And Taro Aso's outspokenness has served him well in the past, helping him appeal to the younger generation.

"He's got a flippancy that's quite amusing for some," said Dr Hyde. "Some of his comments have gone down quite well."

Key voters

But now he is the prime minister, quick quips that offend key parts of his electorate are no joke.

"Everybody's experienced making a slip of the tongue and later regretting it," the Mainichi newspaper said in a recent editorial.

"However, it becomes a grave problem if those who hold public office make inappropriate statements in their official capacities. If public servants make remarks that hurt others, it raises the question of whether they are qualified to serve in their posts."

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, pictured on 28 November 2008
Voters now prefer Mr Ozawa to Mr Aso, recent polls show

Insulting pensioners - who make up a fifth of the population - is particularly unfortunate.

They are already angry with the government over the loss of millions of pension records and the introduction of a new compulsory health insurance scheme.

"Elderly people are the ones that turn out and vote for the LDP," says Dr Hyde. "If Aso is upsetting them, that's problematic for the party. Comments like this could push them further away."

Mr Aso cannot afford to alienate anyone at the moment.

He must call a general election by September 2009, but most expect one much sooner. The LDP - which, apart from a short spell in the mid-1990s, has governed Japan for more than five decades - looks to be facing a tremendous fight.

Recent opinion polls show opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa - who has struggled to connect with voters in the past - moving ahead of Mr Aso in the ratings for the first time. His Democratic Party of Japan has a clear lead over the LDP.

There are warnings from within the LDP of possible defections, and a number of Mr Aso's colleagues have openly criticised him in recent days.

Mr Aso will have to battle hard to convince both his party and his electorate that he is the right man to lead the country in the weeks and months ahead.

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