Japan's Catholic deputy PM was born for the job

Taro Aso has impeccable political lineage in a country where politics remains dynastic
Japan's Catholic deputy PM was born for the job

Taro Aso speaks during a press conference at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, on Oct. 18. The Catholic has been deputy prime minister and finance minister of Japan since 2012. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

Very few Asian countries outside the Catholic-majority nations of the Philippines and Timor-Leste can boast a Catholic political leader, but Japan has had three dating back to 1918.

The latest is Taro Aso, 79, who was prime minister from 2008-09 and has been deputy prime minister and finance minister since 2012.

The only other non-Catholic-majority Asian countries to have had a Catholic leader have been South Korea and South Vietnam.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is its second Catholic leader. The country is at least 10 percent Catholic and 40 percent Christian, a trend that ironically began in its former capital Pyongyang, now capital of ultra-repressive North Korea, where Christianity is believed to have been all but wiped out.

Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam from 1955 until his assassination in 1963, was from a Catholic family.

Catholics in Japan number only 500,000 or less than 0.5 percent of the population, while Christians comprise about 2 million people or just 2 percent of the population.

The outsized representation of Catholics and Christians has underscored Japan’s real commitment to religious freedom, made easier because culture and tradition are the primary drivers in a society that has agreed that religion unusually takes a secondary seat.

From 1918 until his assassination in 1921, Hara Takashi was Japan’s first Catholic prime minister and only the 10th man (there is yet to be a woman) in the job.

The next Catholic PM was Shigeru Yoshida, who held the top job from 1946-47 and from 1948-54. His third daughter Kenzo Aso is Taro Aso’s mother.

There have also been four Protestant Japanese PMs. The main Protestant denominations are Presbyterian, which focused missions to North Asia during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, and Orthodox Christianity due to Japan’s closeness to Russia.

Taro Aso was prime minister from September 2008 to September 2009 when he led the Liberal Democratic Party. Since 2012, he has been deputy to incumbent and one-time rival Shinzo Abe.

Aso has impeccable political lineage in a country where politics remains dynastic, His father Takakichi Aso is the chairman of the Aso Cement Company. His mother is a prime minister’s daughter and his wife Chikako is the daughter of Zenko Suzuki, who was PM from 1980-82.

Aso’s great-great-grandfather Okubo Toshimichi was one of three men who lead the Meiji Restoration — a revolutionary movement with social change as a prime driver from 1866-69 that ended the power of the Tokugawa shogun, restoring the emperor and beginning the rapid modernization and industrialization of Japan.

The Aso family is wealthy and philanthropic, especially in the Kyushu area, and is one of a handful of prominent Catholic business families in Japan that includes the Hattori family, who own the Seiko watch company.

“He's a regular member of a parish in Tokyo, but the pastor wouldn't give any details because it would violate Aso’s privacy,” a Catholic priest in Tokyo told ucanews.

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He said the politician has neither hidden his Catholicism nor worn it on his sleeve, a classic balance found everywhere in Japan’s deeply respectful and circumspect culture where religious affiliations are sublimated to Japanese culture and tradition.

Aso was expected to be among the politicos that Pope Francis was due to meet on Nov. 25 after a private audience with Shinzo Abe, who on Nov. 19 became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister after holding the post since 2012 and from 2006-07. Abe met the pontiff at the Vatican in June 2014.

Aso’s faith has not stopped him from occasionally visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial that honors Japanese war dead. Many Japanese soldiers are considered war criminals by China, where Japan ruthlessly occupied large swathes of the country between 1931 and 1945 and committed well-documented acts of individual and mass violence against civilians.

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