Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi yesterday picked outspoken conservatives as his new top ministers and then a hawkish successor, probably spelling more tension with Asian neighbors in his remaining year in office.
Koizumi, the longest serving Japanese premier in a generation, reshuffled his Cabinet after winning a landslide victory in an election he cast as a referendum on reforming the economy and bringing new faces into politics.
But he tapped two party stalwarts -- both grandsons of former prime ministers -- as his top aides.
Shinzo Abe, 51, was given the powerful post of chief Cabinet secretary, while Taro Aso, a hardliner on China, became foreign minister.
"The Cabinet has moved to the right with the reshuffle," said Sadafumi Kawato, a professor of Japanese politics at Tohoku University. "Japanese foreign policy will get closer to America and remain far apart from China and South Korea."
As chief Cabinet secretary, who is the government spokesman and becomes the acting prime minister when Koizumi travels abroad, Abe's position as a frontrunner to be prime minister when Koizumi leaves office next September has been strengthened.
Both Abe and Aso are staunch defenders of Koizumi's visits -- the latest being on Oct. 17 -- to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including notorious war criminals.
"If the prime minister, the chief Cabinet secretary and the foreign minister all turn up to visit Yasukuni, it is feared it would lead to a quite serious situation," said outgoing foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, who was sidelined in the new Cabinet.
Mizuho Fukushima, head of the left-wing opposition Social Democratic Party, said Koizumi, who had run on a platform of economic change, was "promoting changes to the Constitution and Yasukuni pilgrimages, bringing Japan's relations with the rest of Asia to a very disastrous state."
In April, Aso was the only Cabinet member to pay a pilgrimage to Yasukuni for its spring festival, just as Koizumi was seeking a summit in Jakarta with Chinese President Hu Jintao (
Aso, addressing his first press conference as the incoming foreign minister, said the Yasukuni shrine was not the only issue between the neighbors and urged dialogue.
"Apart from that one particular issue, Japan-China relations as a whole are basically proceeding well in such areas as economic relations and exchanges of youth culture," he said.
Abe, known for his ease with the media, has won a public following for his strongly worded rebukes of North Korea, especially for its past abductions of Japanese citizens.
Abe said Koizumi was still committed to the reforms on which he ran in the election.
"I want to do my best to push forward the structural reforms currently proceeding under Prime Minister Koizumi's leadership. This Cabinet is one that will turn reform into reality," he said.
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