Japan prepares for elections, new minister

TOKYO – Nationalist candidate Shinzo Abe won the race for Japan’s ruling party leader yesterday, all but clinching next week’s election as prime minister and pledging to make his country a more robust force on the world stage.

The son of a foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister, Abe defeated his two opponents by winning 464 of the 702 votes counted in the Liberal Democratic Party election.

The youthful conservative – he turns 52 today – immediately vowed to push ahead with economic reforms, make Tokyo a world leader, pursue summit meetings with both China and South Korea, and keep Japan in the international fight against terrorism.

“I want to make Japan a country that is trusted and loved by the countries of the world, and one that asserts leadership,” Abe, currently chief Cabinet secretary, declared after his victory.

Abe, who favors a hard line against North Korea and tighter military cooperation with top ally the United States, won a three-year term as LDP president. The ruling coalition-dominated Parliament votes for prime minister on Sept. 26.

If elected next week, Abe (pronounced AH-bay) would be Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II. He is relatively inexperienced, having joined Parliament in 1993 and assumed his first Cabinet position only a year ago.

The White House welcomed Abe’s election.

“We have worked closely with Mr. Abe in his capacity as chief Cabinet secretary, and we look forward to working with him in the future to further the Japanese-U.S. alliance,” said Frederick Jones, a spokesman for President Bush’s National Security Council.

Abe campaigned on forging a more confident Japan. He said he would seek to revise the pacifist Constitution to give the military more freedom of action, promote patriotism in the schools, and distance Tokyo from its post-1945 war guilt.

“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 vote with key essentials for victory: high support ratings inside and outside the party and the blessing of his mentor, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who remains widely popular after five years in office.

“From now on, I would like to join everyone in helping Mr. Abe win the public trust,” Koizumi said minutes after the vote.

Because Abe’s victory appeared certain, his competition has been lackluster. 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 Tokyo’s attempt at regional dominance left Japan and much of Asia in ruins.

Abe, for instance, supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on the dark accounts of Japanese atrocities and aggression. He is also a proponent of the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among the country’s war dead.