TOKYO, Japan — Taro Aso, Japan's embattled prime minister, has managed to cram a horrible year into his first three months in office, raising larger questions among many Japanese as to whether the nation's political system can work effectively.
Since Aso assumed leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September — becoming Japan's seventh prime minister in a decade — he has unleashed a series of verbal gaffes.
There has also been public criticism of Aso's love of fine dining, his rock-bottom approval ratings and official acknowledgment that mines controlled by his family's company used forced labor by Allied prisoners of war.
The scion of an elite political-industrial dynasty, Aso's grandfather was Japan's first post-World War II prime minister, his wife is the daughter of a former prime minister and his sister is married to Prince Tomohito.
Having failed in leadership contests against the two previous incumbents, neither of whom lasted a full year, Aso was elected by an overwhelming and enthusiastic LDP majority this time around.
There was to be only the shortest of honeymoon periods. Almost immediately, Aso reminded colleagues and the public of the sorts of remarks for which he was infamous as a senior minister.
Before long he had offended "ill-disciplined" parents of kindergarten students, elderly people who are costing the country too much for health care, and doctors, “many of whom who lack common-sense.”
Then, of course, there's the manga.
Aso is so well-known for his love of these stylized Japanese comics that stock prices in comics publishers rose on news of his election.
But some commentators here have expressed dismay at the notion of the country's prime minister reading a copy of "Rozen Maiden" at Tokyo's Narita Airport. "Although it looked girlish, I was impressed that its story was so deep," Aso reportedly said of the popular manga series.
Manga-reading salarymen are a common sight on Tokyo trains. Many Japanese, however, have echoed the views of some commentators, suggesting that the sight of their nation's leader publicly reading comics featuring living dolls dressed like French aristocrats indicates a lack of, well, gravitas.
Even Hayao Miyazaki, a celebrated creator of animated films that are the highest-grossing of any genre in Japan, called Aso's manga habit “an embarrassment" that "should be done in private.”
Not everyone here is so disapproving, though, especially among Japanese youth. “Aso has been criticized for reading manga but I think it makes him more human, like his mistakes reading kanji (Chinese characters)," said Misako Matsumoto, a Tokyo office worker, referring to a number of occasions when the prime minister misread some fairly common characters. "It's kind of cute."
In November, while discussing the massive earthquake in Sichuan, China, Aso attempted to call the events unprecedented. But he mispronounced the word "mizou" as "mizoyuu," and later misread the characters for "hinpan" (frequency) as "hanzatsu" (complex).
During other speeches, Aso tried to emphasize that Japan sticks by "toushu," the 1995 apology by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama over its wartime conduct, but repeatedly used the word "fushuu," or stink. In subsequent opinion polls, about half of those surveyed said the errors made them question Aso's suitability as prime minister.
For some, the gaffes betray a carefree attitude born of Aso's blue-blood origins.
“Everybody makes mistakes with kanji sometimes, but with Aso you get the feeling he's never had to worry about anything. It never mattered if he could read properly or not,” said Hitomi Mizune, a small business owner who will vote for the opposition center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the next election.
Japan may undergo a rare political realignment in 2009 after largely functioning as a one-party state since the conservative LDP took power in 1955. Although the DPJ won a majority in the upper House of Councilors in 2007 for the first time, the LDP remains in power with the support of its coalition partner, New Komeito.
With approval ratings for Aso hovering above the 20 percent mark, victory for the DPJ looks inevitable. Senior LDP figures have been openly discussing forming a new breakaway party as others have been predicting the end of the LDP as a political force.
There is, however, no youthful, energetic leader waiting to inspire voters with a message of hope and change. Ichiro Ozawa, the current DPJ leader, is a former LDP secretary general with a reputation as a cynical opportunist.
“I think the DPJ will win the next election but I don't think much of Ozawa, nor that much will change when he becomes PM,” Mizune said.
If Japan has successfully navigated the last half century without much that could be called political leadership, can it continue to do so now?
“Maybe it was OK not to have real leadership in the past," Mizune said in response to the question. "But with the economic situation as it is, a lot of people are scared and looking for it now.”