Nationalist Favorite Shinzo Abe a Step Closer to Japan's Top Job

Shinzo Abe bows after easily winning leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He is expected to become prime minister next week.
Shinzo Abe bows after easily winning leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He is expected to become prime minister next week. (By Kazuhiro Nogi Via Bloomberg News)
By Joseph Coleman
Associated Press
Thursday, September 21, 2006

TOKYO, Sept. 20 -- Shinzo Abe, the nationalist who has pledged to make his country a more robust force on the world stage, won the contest to become leader of Japan's ruling party Wednesday, all but clinching election as prime minister next week.

Abe defeated his two opponents by winning 464 of the 702 votes counted in the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, election.

He immediately vowed to push ahead with economic reforms, pursue summit meetings with both China and South Korea, and keep Japan in the international fight against terrorism. He also favors a hard line against North Korea and tighter military cooperation with the United States.

"I want to make Japan a country that is trusted and loved by the countries of the world, and one that asserts leadership," he declared after his victory.

Abe, who is currently chief cabinet secretary, won a three-year term as LDP president. The parliament will vote for retiring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's successor on Sept. 26.

If elected, Abe, who turns 52 on Thursday, would be Japan's youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II. He is relatively inexperienced, having entered parliament in 1993, and assumed his first cabinet position only a year ago.

Abe campaigned on forging a more confident Japan. He said he would seek to revise the country's pacifist postwar constitution to give the military more freedom of action, promote patriotism in the schools and distance the government from its guilt over World War II.

"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 came to the party vote with key essentials for victory: high levels of support inside and outside the party and the blessing of his mentor, Koizumi, who remains widely popular after five years in office.

Because Abe's victory appeared certain, his competition has been lackluster. The challengers, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, never came close to rivaling him in popularity.

One looming question for Japan's neighbors is how far Abe will push his vision of a country freed from the restraining legacy of World War II, in which the imperial government's attempt at regional dominance left Japan and much of Asia in ruins.

Abe supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on accounts of Japanese wartime aggression and atrocities. He is also a proponent of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors the nation's military dead, including 14 convicted war criminals.

Japanese pacifists say Abe's attitudes border on the dangerous. But for supporters, he represents a Japan that can stand up to other nations after decades of turning the other cheek.

"He thinks seriously about Japan's national interests," said Ryohei Saito, 65, who was visiting Yasukuni. "Japan has been too weak till now, so we need to be more assertive. I think Abe can build a strong Japan."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company