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Japan's ruling party hopes Aso will restore its reputation

As a popular politician, Olympian, and fan of manga comics, Taro Aso contrasts sharply with the lackluster former prime minister, whose shoes he is likely to fill on Wednesday.

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"The LDP skipped a generation with Koizumi and then again with [Shinzo] Abe," says a senior US former government official. "Going to Aso is part of fighting generational change in the party."

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Indeed, Aso's policies depart little from traditional LDP fare: He has pledged to pass a major fiscal stimulus package of the sort that was an LDP staple until Mr. Koizumi tried to do away with pork barrel spending, and has dismissed Koizumi's goal of dealing with Japan's massive budget deficit by 2011.

"On domestic policy, [Aso] wants to be the antithesis of Koizumi reform," says Gerald Curtis, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York. "He wants tax cuts and to have the government spend more money to stimulate the economy."

That could attract voters disillusioned by the painful aftershocks of economic reforms. "He will give the Diet a supplementary budget and press the DPJ to agree with it," says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. "If the bill is passed, Aso's Cabinet will get credit. If the DPJ blocks it, Aso will make that an issue in the upcoming general election."

An international agenda

Aso has addressed America's financial upheavals, saying that Japan has to stimulate domestic demand to help a flagging world economy, but warning that the country "must not allow [the crisis] to bring us down as well."

Other international issues that will demand quick attention include the Self-Defense Forces' mission in providing fuel and other support for coalition forces in the Indian Ocean, another extension of which the DPJ opposes.

Aso is also seen as favoring a more diplomatically vocal Japan, and has a hawkish bent. He has had sharp words for China and North Korea; disputes are likely to continue with South Korea over claims to islands known in Korea as Dokdo and in Japan as Takeshima. But he has taken pains to show moderation as well, saying recently that Japan "will live with China."

Whether Aso can stay in office for long is anyone's guess. "Prime Minister Fukuda's biggest problem was that he saw the DPJ's control of the Upper House as meaning he couldn't get anything done," says Professor Curtis. "But divided government can work if you have a strategy. With his personality, Aso has a shot."

For the US, notes the former government official, it's important not to read more into Japan's political struggles than is there

"Japan is important in the global economy; it's an important ally; it provides facilities and bases for the US," he says. "The US shouldn't overstate Japan's current situation as a sign of weakness."

Amelia Newcomb is reporting from Tokyo as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.

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