Japanese Hawk Set to Become Prime Minister

Japan's Liberal Democratic party has chosen its new leader, the man who will automatically become the country's prime minister next week. Shinzo Abe, a hawk who has vowed to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution, won the vote by a large margin.

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Japan's ruling party has chosen a new leader, which means the country will soon have a new leader too. Shinzo Abe is expected to become the prime minister next week.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

Mr. SHINZO ABE (President, Liberal Democratic Party; Potential Successor to Japanese Prime Minister): (Japanese spoken)

LOUISA LIM: I want to make this country beautiful Japan, where children are proud to be born. This is Shinzo Abe's vision, voiced in his final election rally yesterday to applause.

It's a call to strengthen patriotism, a taboo idea in the post-war history of a country until now haunted by guilt for its militaristic past.

Mr. TENDO ITUOKA(ph) (Campaign Worker, Japan): We have to get the pride back.

LIM: Twenty-six year old Tendo Ituoka is a campaign worker who wants to see a stronger, prouder Japan. For him, and other supporters jostling to see their political hero, a beautiful Japan means more hawkish diplomacy, an end to Japanese timidity in international affairs.

But for some this reawakening of national pride threatens a resurgence of ugly nationalism. And for others like Tetsundo Iwakuni, a member of parliament from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the beautiful Japan slogan represents the failings of Abe's vague campaign platform.

Mr. TETSUNDO IWAKUNI (Democratic Party of Japan): It's a beautiful word, but means nothing in the politics. It's a word to be used by the poet and not by the politician. Period.

LIM: You mean it's no substance?

Mr. IWAKUNI: No substance. No beef.

LIM: Is that how you see Shinzo Abe?

Mr. IWAKUNI: Yes.

(Soundbite of Japanese television broadcast)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Japanese spoken)

LIM: The vote by ruling party deputies, shown on live television, was little more than political theater played out to a script. Tetsundo Iwakuni charges that with only 11 months in a Cabinet position, Shinzo Abe has not earned the leadership, but was born into it. After all, as grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister, his nickname is the Prince.

This pedigree brings baggage. His grandfather served on the wartime Cabinet and was imprisoned as a Class A war criminal, though later set free. Shinzo Abe's dynastic background in part explains his political positions, according to Phil Deans from Temple University in Japan.

Professor PHIL DEANS (Professor of International Affairs, Temple University, Japan): He might be called a revisionist. Revisionist nationalism in Japan covers a range of areas. One is revision of the constitution, but another is revision of the past: A rejection of the post-war settlement that saw Japan as guilty, as having committed war crimes and having waged a war over aggression.

Abe is part of that group in Japan that really things that that whole issue should be revisited and that Japanese expansion in the ‘20s and ‘30s brought many benefits to Asia.

Mr. ABE: (Japanese spoken)

LIM: In his acceptance speech, Shinzo Abe vowed that as the first Japanese prime minister born after the war he would take on the flame of reform. One of his first tasks, however, will be rebuilding ties with Japan's Asian neighbors. These have been badly strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to worship the war dead, including war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine.

Deputy Justice Minister Taro Kouno, a member of the ruling LDP, says Abe's nationalist credentials will neutralize this issue but there could be other clouds ahead.

Mr. TARO KOUNO (Minister of Justice, Japan): We can forget about the Yasukuni Shrine. The real issue is how are we going to deal with Taiwan under Abe's administration, because Abe-san has a very well known pro-Taiwan politician in Japan.

LIM: This comes against the backdrop of a rising China now vying for regional supremacy with Japan. In both countries, growing nationalisms are competing. And there's a danger that if things go badly domestically for Abe he could fall back on popular nationalism to win easy points.

Bill Overholt from the Rand Corporation says the U.S. could be sucked into regional tensions.

Mr. BILL OVERHOLT (Public Policy Expert, Rand Corporation): Japan is really at a turning point where relations with its neighbors could worsen substantially. And this could start to become a problem for the U.S. as an ally that's bet the farm on the relationship with Japan.

LIM: Next Tuesday, when he's voted in as prime minister, Shinzo Abe will clearly be leading Japan into a new era. What's not clear is exactly what that era will mean for the rest of Asia.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Tokyo.

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