When Junichiro Koizumi's replacement is named on September 20 - and endorsed by the national Diet six days later - that shuffle towards conservatism is likely to become a stride.
  
On paper, Shinzo Abe, the chief cabinet secretary, has two rivals for the prime minister's chair; he had the position sewn up even before official campaigning got under way on September 8. It is the job he has coveted since his father, Shintaro, died whilst campaigning for Japan's top post in 1991.
  
Noriko Hama, a professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, told Aljazeera.net: "He is a blue-blood in the best traditions of the Liberal Democratic Party and comes from a well-off, ultra-conservative family - and he is intent on continuing that family tradition when he comes to power."

Nicknamed The Prince and author of the recently released book, Towards a Beautiful Country, in which he outlines his core values of liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, 51-year-old Abe has rarely pulled his political punches.

A staunch supporter of Koizumi, who has already endorsed him as his successor, Abe will also benefit from an economy that is back on track and an electorate that likes what it sees in the administration.
  
One of his first objectives will be to revise a constitution that many conservatives believe was imposed on Japan by the Allies at the end of World War II and want replaced with a home-grown version.
  
Constitution

"Of course, I think that revising the constitution and enacting a new one should be the next thing on the political schedule," Abe said earlier this month, pointing to global changes in the last 60 years that render the 1947 charter out of date.

The most contentious section of the constitution, the war-renouncing Article 9, will be the very first to be excised, enabling Japan to play a greater military role abroad and upgrade its defence agency into a full ministry.
  

Abe advocates a tougher line in
Japan's ties with North Korea

And while this will delight the US, which has been urging successive Japanese leaders to contribute more than simply cash to various hotspots in recent years, it will alarm China, South Korea and other nations that see vestiges of the imperialist years of the early 1900s in a resurgent modern-day Japan.

Abe has done nothing to dispel those fears in Japan's neighbours by paying his respects at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan's 2.5 million war dead are interred as gods.

Along with the men who fell in battle, the shrine is also the last resting place for 14 Class-A war criminals. Abe's own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was nearly among those executed as a war criminal but was never brought to trial. Instead, he went on to become prime minister in the 1950s.
  
Wary of reactions

Perhaps mindful of the likely reactions in Beijing and Seoul to the prime minister-in-waiting visiting the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's defeat on August 15, Abe did not attend the ceremonies there this year.

Once in power, it is likely that he will make a point of taking part. He firmly believes that Japan has apologised sufficiently for its past military transgressions and he has no intention of repeating apologies most clearly stated by Tomiichi Murayama, a former prime minister.
  
Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni this year was widely applauded, and the support of veterans, conservatives and the public at large is likely to be transferred to his successor with little ado.
 
Shigekazu Sakane, a 55-year-old technical translator, said on the day Koizumi visited Yasukuni: "I'm very happy that he has come here today and only wish he had done it earlier.

"The comments from other countries should be ignored; they have no right to say anything about Japan's internal actions, especially when they themselves do not look at their own atrocities, like China's Cultural Revolution and their occupation of Tibet."
  
China concerned

The opinions of this part of Japanese society will concern Beijing.
 
Masa Hiro, a 46-year-old security guard from Tokyo who was in the infantry uniform of an Imperial Japanese Army soldier, complete with brass bugle and replica rifle, said:
"I have been coming here on this day for 10 years now and I'm very pleased to see the prime minister making a visit today as well.

"This is an issue for Japan and the Japanese, not for China to interfere in. Other countries should keep out of Japan's affairs.

"Next, I would like to see the emperor come to Yasukuni to pay his respects. That would be difficult, I know, but I think he should come here."
  
Throughout the shrine's precincts, right-wing groups regularly hold up banners saying that the Rape of Nanjing was a fabrication of the Chinese government and that "comfort women", the term for women taken from occupied countries to serve in frontline brothels for Imperial Army troops, were merely propaganda.

Others wear camouflage-pattern combat gear or quasi-military uniforms with badges and combat boots.
  
Hard line

Abe has not yet stated whether he will visit Yasukuni when he becomes prime minister, but he is expected to by a public that still admires him for the strong line he took in negotiations with North Korea on the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang.

He continues to advocate an equally tough position against a government that has nuclear weapons and recently demonstrated that it has - or is close to having - the missile technology to deliver them.

While Abe's stance might alienate his party's ally in government, the New Komeito Party, they will unquestioningly endorse his promotion of family values and morals.

If elected, Abe will be the first
PM born after Japan's defeat

New Komeito's leaders want to improve links with Japan's Asian neighbours, however, and agreement on ambitions for Japanese society may not be sufficient to keep them part of the alliance. Not that Abe will lose much sleep if they do withdraw as his LDP has a large majority in the Diet.

Hama said: "He is much further to the right than Mr Koizumi and a far more convinced conservative, which I believe will make him a leader who is more principled and committed to his line."
  
When he is elected, Abe will be the first prime minister born after Japan's defeat in World War II.

Steeped in the traditions and notions of Japan's imperial heyday, he would undoubtedly like to see that sort of pride in nation in the 21st century.

"And that is an old-fashioned rightist agenda," Hama said, "that calls for us all to be better patriots and to 'love our beautiful country'".