Japan Rethinks Military Role under New Head; Abe Seeks to Step Up U.S. Ties

Article excerpt

Byline: Takehiko Kambayashi, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TOKYO - Shinzo Abe, elected prime minister of Japan on Tuesday by both chambers of the national Diet, said he seeks to strengthen relations with the United States, suggesting an expansion of Japan's military role.

Mr. Abe, 52, the youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II, said he will re-examine the issue of collective self-defense. Now also the president of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Mr. Abe has insisted Japan change the current interpretation that international law gives the nation the right for collective self-defense, but Japan's war-renouncing Constitution prohibits its exercise. A Japanese warship cannot come to the aid of an ally such as the United States attacked by a third country, according to Japanese law.

"I believe that is one of the first things he will work on," said Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo.

"The step is one of Japan's efforts to make the bilateral ties more equal, if only a little," said Tadae Takubo, guest professor of international relations at Kyorin University in Tokyo, and a former Washington bureau chief for Jiji Press. Under the Abe Cabinet, "I expect Japan to forge closer ties with the U.S., especially in security terms. The ties between a stronger Japan and the strong United States could contribute to the stability of Asia."

Those who support Mr. Abe hope Japan will establish in future relations such as those between the United States and Britain, he added.

U.N. Council seat eyed

At his first press conference as prime minister, Mr. Abe, a strong advocate of revising the pacifist Constitution to give Japan's military more freedom of action, promised to develop an assertive diplomacy, adding that one of his goals is to win Japan a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Abe, first elected to the Diet in 1993, never had a Cabinet post, though he served as chief Cabinet secretary in effect the government spokesman. He became popular by taking a strong stance against North Korea, especially North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. When North Korea test-fired several missiles in July, Mr. Abe also suggested the Japanese government discuss whether it could launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korean missile bases.

Since Tuesday, Mr. Abe has boosted the functions of the Prime Minister's Office by increasing its staff. He established five new advisory posts in charge of such issues as North Korean abductions and national security. Some analysts said he is trying to make the office similar to the White House.

Mr. Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, moved into the palatial building of the Prime Minister's Office in April 2002, leaving the 73-year-old mansion that it replaced.

"It is the highest level of 'intelligent building' and has a crisis-management office in the basement. It's sort of a new command center," explained Mr. Shikata, the law professor, who is a retired ground self-defense force general. "Mr. Abe [who worked at the building as chief Cabinet secretary] knows he has to have a new organization to meet the functions."

Cabinet called 'chummy'

Meanwhile, critics note that the prime minister, now surrounded by his close allies, gave Cabinet seats and key party posts to those who helped him attain office. Some call his Cabinet "hawkish" or "chummy."

The Yomiuri Shimbun, an influential daily with the country's largest circulation, criticized the new Cabinet in an editorial, saying its membership "shows that what Abe actually did was to award many of the portfolios to those who helped him win the Liberal Democratic Party presidency."

Akira Yamada, professor of modern Japanese history at Meiji University in Tokyo, went further, saying that while the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Koizumi was more balanced, the Abe Cabinet seems to share a single ideology. …