Shinzo Abe has formally entered the race to be Japan's next prime minister, saying his country must forge a stronger role on the world stage and better ties with Asia.
On Friday, Abe, a conservative cabinet minister with strong views on Japan's disputes with China and South Korea, also stressed economic growth as the key to fiscal reform - which differs from incumbent prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi's motto of "no growth without reform".
He reiterated his call for even closer ties with the US but said he wanted to revise the nation's pacifist constitution, never altered since it was drafted by US occupation forces after Japan's defeat in World War II.
"As the next LDP president, I'd like to take the lead to put revision of the constitution on the political agenda," Abe, 51, told a convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the southern city of Hiroshima.
"I'd like to draft a new constitution with my own hands."
Tough diplomatic stance
Abe, the chief cabinet secretary, was speaking shortly before formally announcing his candidature for LDP president.
The LDP holds an election for party president on September 20. Since the party controls parliament's powerful lower house, its new president is assured of succeeding Koizumi, whose term as LDP chief runs out this month.
Abe, who is widely seen as a shoo-in for the premiership, has won plaudits at home for his tough diplomatic stance. "I want to change Japanese diplomacy to one where Japan takes the lead and makes its stance clear," he told the party convention.
Japanese policy makers have long been wary of high-profile diplomacy, preferring to follow Washington's lead.
In a policy statement, Abe said he would put priority on reviewing government spending before boosting state revenues, but gave no specifics on the controversial issue of when Japan should boost its 5% sales tax.
"No fiscal reforms without growth," he said in the four-page policy document.
The LDP president will be chosen by lawmakers and rank-and-file members of the party and media surveys have indicated that Abe has a hefty majority of their support.
"He's young and I'd like to see a generation change."
an Abe supporter
Abe, who comes from an elite political family, is way ahead of his rivals, finance minister, Sadakazu Tanigaki and foreign minister, Taro Aso, in surveys of general voter preference.
That is a key factor since the party is keen to choose a popular leader in advance of an upper house election next summer.
"He's young and I'd like to see a generation change," said Yuki Sato, a 39-year-old housewife and city assembly member from Abe's hometown in southwestern Japan who was attending the LDP convention. She added she expected the party would fare better at the polls with Abe at the helm than under his rivals.
But analysts and some LDP lawmakers have voiced concerns that Abe may further strain Tokyo's ties with China and South Korea, already chilled largely by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine for war dead, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Abe said on Friday that both Japan and its neighbours should work for better ties.
"We need to try to improve relations with China and South Korea, but the efforts must be mutual."
Abe rose to prominence by taking a tough stance against North Korea after Pyongyang admitted in 2002 to past abductions of Japanese citizens.
He has defended Koizumi's pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine and media reports have said he himself visited there in April. Abe has neither confirmed nor denied the reports.