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Aso and Pence like peas in a pod

No. 2 men in Japan and US calmly waiting in the wings

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso meet in Tokyo on April 18. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

TOKYO -- Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence have forged a solid relationship in the first few months of the new U.S. administration, and the budding friendship could pay off in ways neither had envisaged.

The No. 2 men in their respective governments find themselves in a remarkably similar political position. Both secretly harbor designs on the top job but have so far refrained from making any aggressive moves to pursue their ambition.

Stealing the spotlight

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes from the Liberal Democratic Party's largest faction, now led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, chairman of the party's General Council.

But it was Aso who stole the show at a Hosoda faction fund-raising party at the Tokyo Prince Hotel on of May 23.

With Abe arriving late due to unexpected diplomatic duties, Aso, who heads his own LDP faction, took the stage and wowed the 5,000 guests in typically colloquial fashion.

By the time Abe arrived, many of the guests were already making their way home and the prime minister's speech was largely drowned out by the chatter in the banquet hall.

It may have been purely down to chance, but Aso will certainly not have minded leaving a stronger impression than his boss, and will be feeling increasingly confident.

Earlier in the month, the Aso faction had agreed to join forces with a smaller LDP faction lead by Akiko Santo, a former vice president of the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan's parliament. The merger comes into effect after the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and will create the second-largest group within the ruling party.

At the fundraiser on May 23, Aso said, "The Hosoda faction is the largest faction. But just having lots of members is not necessarily good." The remarks came from a man well aware that his hosts are becoming alarmed at his group's rapid rise.

Abe became prime minister for the second time in December 2012, having previously served between 2006 and 2007. Aso also held the post between 2008 and 2009.

When Abe took the helm for the second time, Aso assumed the No. 2 position, but it is an open secret in Nagata-cho, Japan's political district, that Aso has not given up on a second crack at the leadership.

Aso's jockeying for influence is testament to his ambition. But rather than directly challenging the party's undisputed top dog, he may receive a boost from an unlikely source in his U.S. counterpart.


In April, Pence made his first visit to Japan since taking office for the inaugural meeting of the Japan-U.S. Economic Dialogue, a new framework for economic talks between the two countries he co-chairs with Aso.

Pence was accompanied by his wife and two daughters, who were given the red-carpet treatment by the Aso family.

The April 18 meeting was largely a get-acquainted session, with one U.S. government official describing it as "a dialogue for dialogue." During the visit, Pence placed more importance on a speech he made on the USS Ronald Reagan than the economic talks.

Speaking aboard the aircraft carrier stationed at Yokosuka, near Tokyo, on April 19, he reiterated the Trump administration's tough stance toward North Korea.

"Those who would challenge our resolve or our readiness should know," he warned, "we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response."

"Pence has ambition," said a clearly impressed Aso.  

With his charm and confidence, the devout Christian has an air of a Republican president that comes in stark contrast to the brash Trump. 

Speculation is mounting in Congress over the possibility of Trump being impeached over allegedly shady ties to Russia.

If many U.S. media reports are to be believed, there is now an increasing possibility of Pence making the step up to the presidency.


In mid-May, a U.S. government official visited Japan for an event organized by the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. 

Certain remarks raised eyebrows at a meeting with LDP lawmakers.

The official insinuated there is a good chance Trump will not be able to serve out his term when he referred to predictions by two Americans -- Allan Lichtman and Tony Schwartz.

Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington, made headlines by predicting a Trump victory in last year's election, earning the moniker "prediction professor" in the process.

In his new book, titled "The Case For Impeachment," Litchman predicts Trump will be impeached and removed from his post before his four-year term is out.

Schwartz is co-author of Trump's best-selling book, "The Art of the Deal." The longtime associate of the president appeared on CNN in May and predicted Trump would resign before any impeachment process got underway in order to claim a "victory."

"There is no right and wrong for Trump," Schwartz said. "There's winning and losing."

Lichtman and Schwartz both believe Pence is positioning himself in case there is a vacancy in the Oval Office.






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