After Koizumi publicly reiterated his plans to step down as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japanese media played a guessing game of his potential successors.

 

Although several names have already cropped up in the media, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Shinzo Abe, a firm Koizumi supporter and acting secretary general of the LDP, frequently sounds off on the most pressing issues that Japan faces at present; North Korea, China, Japanese troops in Iraq and reform of the United Nations Security Council.

 

His comments on Japan's foreign policy issues have done little to alter the impression that he is even more hawkish than Japan's present leader.

 

Committing Japanese troops

 

"We deployed the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to Iraq to help rebuild that country and because we value our relationship with the United States," Abe told Aljazeera.net.

 

"We want Iraq to become a thriving country and we believe it will face problems in the future, but we also believe that there is honour in being able to say that Japan is contributing to Iraq."

Some say Abe's statements on
foreign policy show he is a hawk

 

Discussions are presently under way concerning Japan's commitment to Iraq, where some 600 members of the SDF are stationed in the southern city of Samawah.

 

The troops have been primarily engaged in rebuilding damaged infrastructure in the city; but their role is being reconsidered as British troops, which have provided security for the past two years, are to be withdrawn from the sector next year.

 

A loyal supporter of Koizumi's sometimes unpopular policies, Abe, 50, has also defended the prime minister in his dealings with China and tensions over the Yasukuni Shrine.

 

The Chinese connection

 

Yasukuni Shrine, in the heart of Tokyo, stirs the emotions of Japan's neighbours, particularly China, because it is a monument dedicated to more than two million Japanese who have fallen in battle. Those include 12 Class-A war criminals executed after World War II by the Allies.

 

Koizumi has visited the shrine every year since his inauguration and has pledged to do so again this year; his visits are met with condemnation from the governments of China, Taiwan and both North and South Korea, countries occupied by Japan’s Imperial Army until 1945.

Koizumi's visit to the Shrine
angered Japan's neighbours

 

Of all the countries offended by the pilgrimages of top Japanese politicians to Yasukuni Shrine, the most outspoken is China.

 

Abe says Koizumi’s visit to the Shrine should not be interpreted as an act of hostility toward China, stressing the current prime minister’s efforts to strengthen peaceful ties between the two economic giants.

 

"But at the same time he believes it is correct to pray for the souls of the people who died for the country," he said. "I don't think that a person who is not patriotic could be a leader of the country."

 

"There should not be a boycott of Japanese products if Mr Koizumi goes to the Yasukuni Shrine and I believe this government is taking a rational approach to these issues," he said. Abe himself visited the shrine on 15 August this year, the 60th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

 

"If you consider the treatment of Japanese soccer fans at the Asian soccer championships last year and the intrusion into Japanese territorial waters of a Chinese submarine, I do not see Japanese people on the streets ripping up pictures of China's leaders," Abe said. "We will continue to show a rational approach in the future."

 

Veering to the right

 

Analysts say there is little doubt that the administration will take a sharp step to the right if and when Abe comes to power.

 

"He is very likely to take a more hawkish line, largely because he made a lot of his political name by dealing with the North Korean problem," said Steven Reed, a professor of politics at Chuo University.

 

And although he has a long career in politics, the one area in which he may not measure up so well in comparison to the present incumbent is his media image, Professor Reed believes.

 

"He has a high degree of popularity and he is the most popular person on the short list of potential candidates, but he is not very mediagenic (sic) yet and he is a little quiet.

 

"But that may change," he added. "Mr. Koizumi was always considered something of a flake and was not very popular until he ran for the party leadership. I think Mr. Abe can pick up the television image stuff as he goes along and learn from the Koizumi model."

 

A hardliner?

 

Others, however, fear what is likely to be a step to the right could be a leap to the right.

"His foreign policy positions are a large area of concern for me, and in that respect I think he would be the very worst choice for Japan," said Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications at Hokkaido University.

Abe (L) stood behind Prime
Minister Koizumi's Asian policies

 

"China and the two Koreas know that he is a hard-liner when it comes to relations with foreign countries, and yet still he becomes the Japanese leader.

"I fear his appointment will have a bad effect on Japan's relations with other Asian countries, particularly as Koizumi seems to be focusing his attention on domestic issues at the moment and has left international matters to cool down," he said.

 

The other problem, Watanabe believes, is that Abe has given few indications as to what new policies he might bring to government.

"Abe has given no sign of where he stands on social policy issues, for example, and I fear that he might become a leader who is once again controlled by factions behind the scenes," he said.

 

"Koizumi has achieved a great deal by breaking down factional politics and to go back to that would be a major mistake.

"In my opinion, there are better options for prime minister," he added.

 

Rising through the ranks

 

The son of a senior LDP politician and grandson of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe has represented a rural electorate since 1993, rising quickly in the party. He makes little effort to conceal his political inclinations.

 

He has admitted putting pressure on national broadcaster NHK in 2001 to edit a television programme that staged a mock trial of Emperor Hirohito and found him guilty of war crimes. He is also a vocal supporter of history textbooks that critics say relegate war crimes to mere footnotes.

 

Given the task by Mr Koizumi of dealing with Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, he has also stated his belief that Pyongyang has been showing "a lack of sincerity" in talks on the matter and that unless that changes, Japan would be ready to impose economic sanctions.

 

But as with all loyal seconds, Abe ducked the question of whether he hoped one day to become prime minister.

 

"As well as myself, there are many outstanding people in the party and especially some quite brilliant young people," he replied to the direct question. His smile, however, betrays the indication that there is nothing he would like more.