Vadim Ghirda/AP
Japanese PM Taro Aso

Is the Floundering Japanese PM the Next Bush?

March 06, 2009 09:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has been bungling words in speeches, spurring language book sales, bolstering his opponents and earning him comparisons to former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Reading Trouble For Aso

Prime Minister Taro Aso has trouble reading his own language, though, according to a government study, he’s not alone. One-fifth of Japan’s population over 16 years old regularly encounters characters they can’t read; a third reported they had trouble writing characters without help from a dictionary, and half said they weren’t proficient in the 2,000 characters necessary to read a newspaper.

The Times of London likened the prime minister to former President George W. Bush, famous for his foot-in-mouth errors. Aso has likewise stumbled through numerous speeches. For example, he told the public he looked forward to “cumbersome meetings” with China, rather than “frequent meetings.”

Then, while apologizing for World War II atrocities, he used the word “toshu” instead of “fushu.” So that instead of saying “I support apology for the war,” he told his audience, “I stench apology for the war.” The Associated Press reported that it “sounded as if he were saying government policy ‘stinks.’”

The AP explained, “Aso’s nemesis is his mother tongue’s notoriously tricky mishmash of Chinese characters and its two sets of indigenous syllabaries.”

The Times conceded that Japanese is more difficult than most other languages. In contrast to Chinese, where a single character’s meaning is static, in Japanese one character can have as many as nine pronunciations rooted in context. However, by adulthood a prime minister would be expected to have mastered its complexity.

In February, the AP reported that during a televised meeting, opposition lawmaker Hajime Ishii tried to give the prime minister a pop quiz. Presenting him with a poster showing the characters for a dozen words, he asked, “Can you handle them?” Aso refused the bait.

After Aso’s errors had been made public in November, sales of the book, “Chinese Characters that Look Readable but are Easily Misread,” rocketed. It is now the best-selling book in Japan followed by a book of speeches by President Barack Obama.

The media attributes the prime minister’s failings to his comic book addiction, a problem sometimes referred to as “manga brain.” The AP reports that in Fukuoka, the town where Aso grew up, children who have trouble reading are branded “little Taros.”

Mispronunciations haven’t been Aso’s only mistakes. As the Times reports, Taro has a characteristic inability to think before speaking; prior to his election he confessed that his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, had warned him “to bite his tongue.”

He seemed to have forgotten this advice a month after the elections, when he called the elderly “hobbling malingerers,” adding, “I pay my taxes, so why should I pay money for people who laze around eating and drinking and never do anything?”

One-fifth of Japan’s voters are over 70. Aso himself is 68. The Times quoted several other controversial comments regarding Alzheimer’s patients, doctors and Koreans, and quoted opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama who was quick to opine, “I can’t help but wonder whether such a person is really fit to be Prime Minister.”
In February, Japan Today reported that just before a significant meeting with President Obama, the prime minister’s own approval ratings were dreadful. He was considered “among the country’s least popular postwar leaders.”

Japanese newspapers showed approval ratings between 11 and 15 percent, with between 39 and 70 percent calling for his resignation, creating a serious predicament for the country. Japan Today writes, “The hazy leadership picture has emboldened the political opposition, making it difficult for Aso to pass legislation combating the economic crisis.”

Key Player: Taro Aso

In February, Aso won two-thirds of the vote for his party’s nomination, beating out four other candidates including Yuriko Koike, the first female candidate for the job. Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, the two previous prime ministers both resigned before their terms were completed.

Related Topic: Aso apologizes for choice of finance minister

In February, Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa resigned after appearing drunk at a press conference. According to the Taipei Times, Aso said he was sorry that the minister had resigned at such a critical time for the country’s economy. He added, “The responsibility for appointing him as a cabinet minister resides with me, of course.”

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