Shinzo Abe was overwhelmingly elected as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Wednesday.
If elected as prime minister next week, the 52-year old will be the first person born after World War II to hold the post. With such an overwhelming support within the LDP, that looks a certainty.
Abe has pledged to re-write Japan‘s pacifist constitution, as well as continue economic reforms needed to tackle Japan’s large public debt.
He also seeks tighter security ties with close ally Washington, keeping Japan firmly in the international ‘War on Terror’, and favours a tough stance towards North Korea.
Change in constitution
Abe campaigned for a more confident Japan. He seeks to revise the pacifist Constitution to give the military more freedom of action and promote patriotism in schools, moves which aim to distance Tokyo from its post-1945 war guilt.
“I would like to join everyone in helping Mr Abe win the public trust”
“He’s from the generation that doesn’t know war,” said Takashi Sasagawa, an LDP lawmaker. “Not knowing war is his strength, because he can be on equal terms with other countries.”
Despite his inexperience, Abe has the blessing of Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s outgoing prime minister. Koizumi remains widely popular after five years in office, a long time by Japanese standards.
“From now on, I would like to join everyone in helping Mr Abe win the public trust,” Koizumi said minutes after the vote. Such an endorsement is likely to strengthen Abe’s hand even further.
If Abe is elected, there could be a change in the country’s relationship with its World War II past. He supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on the dark accounts of Japanese aggression during the war.
Japanese demonstrators holding a
He also defended Koizumi’s pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal are honoured along with the nation’s war dead. However, he has declined to say if he would pay his respects there if elected as prime minister.
Japanese pacifists say Abe’s attitudes are potentially harmful. But to his supporters he represents a Japan that can finally assert itself to other nations after decades of turning the other cheek.
“He thinks seriously about Japan‘s national interests,” said Ryohei Saito, 65, who visited the Yasukuni war shrine on Thursday. “Japan has been too weak till now, so we need to be more assertive. I think Abe can build a strong Japan.”
Yet delicacy is needed if Abe is to improve relations with China and South Korea, two victims of Japanese aggression that have refused to meet with Koizumi because of his visits to Yasukuni.
Ties with neighbours
Abe has said he encourages summit meetings with Beijing. “It is regrettable that the summit meetings between Chinese and Japanese leaders haven’t happened,” Abe said in an interview with Japan‘s national broadcaster NHK.
“It is important for leaders to frankly talk with each other, even though there may be various problems between neighbouring countries.”
Abe says he will seek dramatic economic reforms, necessary in a country where there is a widening gap between rich and poor. “I will vigorously bring reform forward. We must not, at any cost, stop reforming,” he said.
Abe’s plans are ambitious for a country that seeks to reconcile its past with the present. If he is elected, there could be a change in Japan’s character.