Japan's Trump-in-Waiting? Taro Aso is the Clown Prince of Politics

He is really rich, stunningly insensitive, stupidly honest, and possibly the next prime minister. He may be the perfect Japanese counterpart for The Donald.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty

TOKYO—Japan’s Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and enough room to insert his foot in as well—again and again. He is one of the wealthiest members of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which everyone knows is neither liberal nor democratic, and has a solid record protecting the Japanese Business Federation and its interests.

In that sense, Aso is an exemplary LDP member.

He was also once the prime minister of Japan, lasting a few days short of a full year.

He is famous for his gaffes: “Why don’t we learn how to do constitutional reform from the Nazis?”—and, “How long do these people over 90 intend to live anyway?”

He’s not very diplomatic or good at manipulating the press, but on the plus side, unlike Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he has a sense of humor and he’s not vicious.

Although he is incredibly rich, no one knows how wealthy.

He’s also a dapper dresser. He and the most powerful yakuza boss in Japan, the 6th generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Tsukasa Shinobu, seem to have the same tailor.

Aso was born in Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture on 20 September 1940, to Takakichi Aso, the chairman of the Aso Cement Company and a close associate of Japan’s political elite. His mother, Kazuko Aso, was Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida's daughter. He also has distant relations in the Imperial Family.

In terms of power in Japan, if his blood was any bluer, he’d be a smurf.

Aso who had a charmed childhood, graduated from the Faculty of Politics and Economics at Gakushuin University and reportedly attended London School of Economics.

He joined his father's company in 1966, and gradually turned it into a successful mining operation, working as CEO of Aso Mining Company from 1973 to 1979. He’s lived in Brazil (he is said to speak Portuguese) and in Sierra Leone. He was also a member of the Japanese shooting team at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

Today he’s best known for shooting off his mouth.

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Aso began his political career in 1979 and was elected as a member of the Japanese House of Representatives in October that year. He has since been re-elected eight times.

He has revolved through a number of cabinet positions and in whatever post has rarely failed to make an offensive remark. In 2001, the year he was appointed economics minister, he said he wanted to remake Japan into a country where "rich Jews" would like to live. He also alienated Japan’s own persecuted minority, the burakumin, the former outcast class of the nation, by saying that a member of that minority “can never become prime minister.”

None of this stopped him from getting a lot of love from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Abe’s first round in the PM chair. When Abe could no longer stomach the job, metaphorically and physically, Aso Taro was next in line. He had to wait for another LDP lackey to be made the 58th prime minister. But he remained patient and on September 24, 2008, he became Number 59.

During his brief reign, the press picked at his habit of lavish spending, dining out, and lack of common sense. He seemed to have no idea how much a cup of instant ramen cost. Aso blew the popular press off by saying that he liked to live large and they could shove it. He was Trump before Trump.

His habit of spending lavishly didn’t win him great popular support, although many people did find his love of comic books (manga) and anime (Japanese animated films) kind of endearing. His colleagues, not so much. One senior LDP member, speaking on background, said, “If he’d actually read books instead of comic books, maybe he’d make fewer dumbass remarks.”

Aso was unlucky to be holding the reins of power just as Lehman Brothers collapsed, heralding the world financial crisis. Unemployment levels rose to a post-war high and disenchantment with the LDP rose with them. The party took a drubbing in the Tokyo assembly election in July of 2009, and Aso announced a general election for August 30 that year in an effort to consolidate power.

The result? The LDP lost by a landslide to the Democratic Party of Japan, the first real regime change in the country in decades. Aso took full responsibility for the worst defeat of a sitting government in post-war Japanese history and resigned.

But his legacy of gaffes has never been forgotten.

When Abe came back from the political graveyard in 2012, Aso came back with him. During his stint as Japanese deputy prime minister Aso, advocated using the Nazi party’s tactics to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution during a speech to an ultra-nationalist group: “I don’t want to see this done noisily … How about doing it quietly, just as, in one day, the Weimar constitution changed to the Nazi constitution, without anyone realizing it, why don’t we learn from that sort of tactic?” After Jewish groups and Japan’s neighbors expressed outrage at the remarks, Aso did not apologize. He did offer a clarification. “It is very unfortunate and regrettable that my comment regarding the Nazi regime was misinterpreted … I would like to retract the remark about the Nazi regime.”

His refusal to apologize may be part of his staying power. (Trump watchers take note.) At a time when Japan began intensely cracking down on the yakuza, Japan’s mafia, the souvenir shop at the National Diet sold brown sugar crackers as souvenirs with Aso Taro dressed like Al Capone on them. Aso reportedly gave the package and the snacks his own personal approval.

The snacks “Taro Capone," have on the cover a trench-coat-cload cigar-smoking Aso as a protective deity who would take care of Japan’s money. On the bottom of the package, little Shinzo Abe is pictured saying, “I put my trust in him.”

Yes, one should always entrust the nation’s money to a guy who dresses like and idolizes gangsters. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that he comes from a family that really knows how to make money—including the use of slave labor before and during World War II.

Aso is at his wittiest when it comes to issues involving money.

On the 2008 financial crisis: “Many people fell prey to the dubious financial entities, or so-called subprime loans. Managers of Japan’s banks barely understood English. That’s why they didn’t buy.”

On the cost of care for the elderly: “The problem won’t get solved unless we let them hurry up and die.”

On global warming: “People are worried about it but if the earth gets warmer, here in Hokkaido (Northern Japan), the rice will really grow.”

There is no issue that Aso won’t speak his mind on, including his famous statement in 1983, “Giving women the right to vote was our biggest failure.”

A delightfully vicious collection of essays, (Japan’s) Illustrated Guide To Idiots, mentions Aso several times, but apparently he was such an obvious choice that he didn’t get his own entry. He’s on a different level of idiocy.

There is a Japanese saying, Taichi wa Gu No Gotoshi, which means great wisdom seems like stupidity. It could be true either way with Mr. Aso.

Perhaps he really is smart in his own way. Aso is definitely not stupid; but many in Japan call him baka-shojiki, an adjective in Japanese meaning “stupid honesty” or being overly straightforward.

As a reporter, I’m sort of grateful for his existence. Without him, we’d never really know what the Abe administration’s real agenda has always been: using tactics from the Nazi playbook to rebuild Imperial Japan, get rid of gender equality, human rights, popular sovereignty, a free press, the constitution and anything else that stops Japan’s traditional elite from ruling the nation as they want.

It may be a little hard for someone outside of Japan to grasp Aso Taro’s staying power.

Imagine we are looking at an elite prep school instead of the government. Aso Taro would be the class clown; Abe would be the school bully and the class president. Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga would be Abe’s best friend, carry his books, and do Abe’s homework for him.

It’s like they all grew up up together to run Japan. If only the Japanese people would get out of the way and let them do it, everything would be fine.

You may wonder why we even are bothering talk about ex-Prime Minister Aso at the moment.

Well, he may be be making a comeback.

History repeats itself and in Japan it seems to do so in increasingly rapid cycles. Prime Minister Abe’s second term as Prime Minister seems close to ending as his approval ratings plunge below 30 percent in the wake of scandals that suggest he favors his friends over the people. Opinion show people believe that he is untrustworthy and perhaps even a dangerous right-wing historical revisionist.

Yes, the Japanese are figuring this out. The ass-kicking his Liberal Democratic Party took in the Tokyo Assembly elections last month has made even Abe’s own party members turn on him.

Already, factions in the Liberal Democratic Party are beginning to discuss who should be his successor. And guess whose name is being seriously mentioned? Our favorite Aso.

In a way, with his lack of any sensitivity to the working poor, cluelessness, and predilection for making inappropriate remarks—he might be a great match for our American president. Maybe @realDonaldTrump can show him how to use Twitter? … Please?