Japan's prime minister promised government assistance for troubled companies facing the global financial crisis as he courted young voters in his first outdoor stump speech amid growing speculation he will soon call elections.
Prime Minister Taro Aso said the financial crisis stemming from the U.S. subprime mortgage problems has had a "severe impact" on Japan's economy and businesses.
"Economic measures are the top priority," Aso said Sunday, promising to provide government aid to help ailing companies survive the difficulties. He also pledged to raise the minimum wage for young workers and help part-time employees switch more easily to full-time positions.
Aso, an ardent fan of Japanese "manga" comics, made his first public speech since becoming prime minister in September, on the streets of Akihabara, Tokyo's biggest electronics district and the center of manga and anime geeks known as "otaku."
"I'm a big fan of Mr. Aso because I think he cares about us. And I like him because he is such a positive thinker," said Kosuke Hamagami, a 23-year-old office worker and fan of Doraemon comic books.
Aso has been under pressure to turn around his ailing ruling party, which has faced a series of scandals. The main opposition party gained control of parliament's upper house in elections last year.
Despite rising speculation, Aso has refused thus far to announce a date for elections in the more powerful lower house.
Ruling party leaders who had pushed for polls in early November are now suggesting taking more time so the government can implement economic measures that could boost its popularity and put the party in a better position for elections.