Mr Abe, meet the neighbours

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 September, 2006, 12:00am

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe just celebrated his 52nd birthday. He could not have wished for a better birthday present: the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for the past six decades, overwhelmingly voted him in as the new president, replacing the retiring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.


With the LDP's control of the lower house, Mr Abe is set to become the new prime minister of the world's second largest economy next week.


Like his predecessor, Mr Abe belongs to a political family dynasty that goes back three generations. His grandfather, an accused war criminal, went on to become prime minister in the late 1950s; his great uncle took the same position a decade later; and his father was foreign minister.


Like Mr Koizumi, Mr Abe comes to power with a lot of media worship and fanfare, riding a wave of high popularity with great expectations from the Japanese public. Mr Koizumi successfully created a facade of being the champion of reform, with little substance.


Similarly, Mr Abe has painted himself as the poster boy of 'creating a new and beautiful nation'.


But Mr Abe is much younger than Mr Koizumi, 64. In fact, the new leader is Japan's youngest post-war prime minister, and the first one born after the second world war. Perhaps he represents a new generation with new energy. But Mr Abe has very little to show for himself other than his handsome, TV-savvy image carefully created for a largely uncritical Japanese media.


He was his father's secretary until the elder Mr Abe passed away in 1991. He entered politics in 1993 - a common practice in a country in which sons and daughters routinely inherit their parents' parliamentary seats with the endorsement of the party.


He never held a cabinet position until he was appointed chief cabinet secretary last year.


Mr Abe came to national fame by taking an extremely hawkish line on North Korea several years ago, over the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang's secret agents. The recent missile tests by North Korea have further strengthened his position, since the Japanese public is concerned about its security.


Mr Koizumi pursued a close relationship with the United States, either by sending Japanese troops to Iraq or by impersonating Elvis Presley. But Mr Abe has declared that he wants the country to be more than just a follower in international affairs.


Japan should be in the rank of rule-setting states, as Mr Abe envisions its role under his leadership.


Mr Abe has made it clear that he intends to revise Japan's constitution - originally written by Americans after the war - within the next five years.


Japan's military, one of the strongest and probably the most technically sophisticated in the world, is likely to see its status raised from the rank of an agency to a ministry under Mr Abe.


He may differ from Mr Koizumi on the Yasukuni Shrine issue, too. Mr Koizumi has isolated Japan diplomatically in Asia by insisting on worshipping at the shrine, where war criminals are buried among the war dead. But Mr Abe has shown some flexibility in how he will handle relations with China and South Korea. Both countries view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, and have stopped holding summits with Mr Koizumi.


Mr Abe has not pledged to the right wing of the LDP - as Mr Koizumi did five years ago - that he would worship at Yasukuni annually.


He has regularly visited the shrine on the August 15 anniversary of the Japanese surrender at the end of the second world war - a key date on the calendars of Japan's nationalists.


Mr Abe has dodged the question lately on whether he would do so as the prime minister. Instead, he revealed that he had made a private visit to Yasukuni back in April - clearly a move calculated to satisfy the right-leaning conservatives in the LDP.


This will also give him time to repair ties with Beijing, without the looming shadow of Yasukuni. A Japan-China summit would certainly boost Mr Abe's international standing, as most Japanese want to improve relations with Beijing as well as Seoul.


But whether true reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours can be sustained under the Abe administration is uncertain. He has been a core supporter of a revisionist history textbook that glosses over Japan's past militarism - which he sees as strengthening Japanese patriotism.


He has openly questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal that prosecuted Japanese war criminals at the end of the second world war. And, in recent LDP leadership debates, he is the only candidate refusing to use the word 'aggression' to describe Japanese war activities in the Asia-Pacific region during the past century.


The world will watch Mr Abe closely as he takes over from Mr Koizumi.


Wenran Jiang is the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. The views expressed here are his own