The Man Seen as Japan's Next Leader ; Shinzo Abe, a Conservative Who Is Hawkish on Foreign Policy, Will Most Likely Be Tapped in Late September

By Bennett RichardsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Man Seen as Japan's Next Leader ; Shinzo Abe, a Conservative Who Is Hawkish on Foreign Policy, Will Most Likely Be Tapped in Late September


Bennett RichardsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In late September, Japan will get a new prime minister. The post is almost sure to be filled by 51-year old Shinzo Abe, a man who has been picked out as a contender to one day lead his country from before he could barely walk.

The race to replace current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is an internal party election for presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rather than a nationwide vote.

The conservative Mr. Abe is currently the chief cabinet secretary. He holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls for preferred leader after his only major rival, 70-year old Yasuo Fukuda, declared late last month his intention not to run. Mr. Fukuda chose to bow out after North Korea launched a barrage of missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 5. The elderly statesman said he felt the tough-talking Abe would be better suited to dealing with the recalcitrant Pyongyang dictatorship.

In a country where power most often proceeds from seniority and rank, the youthful Abe owes his rapid rise to his family pedigree, as well as a nationalist shift under Mr. Koizumi that has moved Japan toward a broader use of its military and a more muscular diplomacy in East Asia. Abe is a key critic of Pyongyang for instance, and less willing to accommodate Beijing and Seoul if it is seen to compromise national interests. The alarm in Japan at North Korea's recent missile launch allowed him to showcase his ability to talk decisively about Japanese options for handling threats.

"An Abe government is looking more and more certain," says political analyst Hiromichi Shirakawa at Credit Suisse Group in Tokyo.

Koizumi's reform drive has lagged in recent months, adding to Abe's appeal as a youthful, energetic leader who could reignite the reform agenda begun by Koizumi, says Mr. Shirakawa. "There is strong support for rejuvenating not only the office of prime minister but also politics in general."

Other candidates such as Minister of Finance Sadakazu Tanigaki have also thrown their hats in the ring, but the political pundits are so positive that Abe will take the post that many not only refer to him as the "post-Koizumi" leader, but also call the current government the "pre-Abe" administration.

Koizumi is long thought to have favored Abe as his successor given their similar outlooks on a range of issues from economic reform to creating a more active role for Japan on the international stage. After extracting the economy from a 15-year slump, Koizumi will be a hard act to follow.

Compared to other leaders, Abe would enter office with few elections under his belt - meaning that his long-term vision remains somewhat of an unknown. But he already has a reputation for being hawkish on foreign policy issues. He was a key player in a campaign of criticism targeting North Korea for its past abduction of Japanese citizens. He also supports Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which pays tribute to Japan's war dead including 14 Class-A war criminals. China and South Korea view the visits as a glorification of Japan's past militarism, but Abe has backed his leader's stubborn refusal to view the matter as anything other than domestic.

Although he has recently tiptoed around the shrine issue, stating that would like to continue paying his respects to the war dead but not saying where he would do so, many believe Abe could visit Yasukuni as prime minister. …

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