Japan's New Leader Promises Tough Line On China

Shinzo Abe will be Japan's next prime minister. He last held the position in 2006, but resigned after a troubled year in office. His party, the Liberal Democratic Party, ruled for all but 11 months from 1955 to 2009.

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Japanese politics is not known for second acts. But last night, Shinzo Abe won a rare second chance to serve as Japan's prime minister, that's after his Liberal Democrats swept to victory in parliamentary elections. Abe's return has caught people's attention across East Asia. That's because, despite his party's name, Abe is conservative. He's also pro-U.S. and he's promised to get tough on China.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Tokyo.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Abe appeared on Japanese TV last night, he sounded like a man who had known defeat. And he tried not to read too much into his victory over the current ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through translator) This doesn't mean trust in the LBP is 100 percent back, but it means people thought they should put an end to the political disorder.

LANGFITT: Analysts say the LBP win had more to do with the poor performance of its opponent than anything else. Voters were unhappy with the ruling party's mishandling of last year's nuclear meltdown and the slow pace of rebuilding after the tsunami. And now, it looks like Japan is in another recession. Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University, Japan.

JEFF KINGSTON: Everybody is disappointed in the ruling DPJ. They have not delivered on any of their promises.

LANGFITT: Five years ago, it was Abe who giving up power. His brief tenure as prime minister was widely seen as a failure marred by financial scandals and a right wing agenda that alienated voters. After less than a year in office, Abe suddenly resigned. Here he is at a press conference afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

ABE: (Through translator) Naturally, there are many points I need to reflect upon. It is my responsibility that the Abe Cabinet, both the former and the reshuffled Cabinet, was unable to gain the trust of the people.

LANGFITT: The next day, Abe was hospitalized for exhaustion. Koichi Nakano teaches political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

KOICHI NAKANO: The abrupt way in which he left the country in, you know, disarray without a leader made it look like he's never going to make a comeback.

LANGFITT: People like Nakano might have preferred it that way. He worries that Abe will try to take Japan to the right again and only worsen relations with China and other nations in the region.

NAKANO: I see in him somebody who's coming, of course, from a political dynasty, having a very famous grandfather who is a member of the Tojo Cabinet of the time of the attach of Pearl Harbor. So, you know, in terms of conservative pedigree, he's nearly perfect.

LANGFITT: Abe campaigned on a stronger role for Japan's military. He also says he'll take a tougher line on China in the recent dispute over islands in the East China Sea. In the past, Nakano notes, Abe has also made statements that infuriated neighbors, including South Korea that suffered from Japanese wartime aggression.

NAKANO: He has many times denied Japan's military involvement in the recruitment or the coercion of the comfort women, the sex slave during the Second World War.

LANGFITT: Even though a Japanese government spokesman apologized for it nearly two decades ago. Other analysts, though, suspect Abe has learned his lesson. Koji Murata thinks Abe may reach out to neighbors once he takes office as he did the last time he had the job. Murata teaches political science at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

KOJI MURATA: Previously, he was considered to be very conservative and hawkish. But once he became a prime minister, he decided to visit China and the South Korea, tried to improve our relationship with the neighboring countries. So I think Abe is more pragmatic than many people believe.

LANGFITT: Voters reaction to Abe's victory yesterday was mixed at best. Takashi Eguro rode his bike to a polling station in Kazo, a city about 100 miles north of Tokyo. He cast his vote for Abe's party and crossed his fingers.

TEKASHI EGURO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I really hope he doesn't do what he did before, Eguro said.

TAKASHI EGURO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I really hope he doesn't quit and give up this time. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Tokyo.

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