Shinzo Abe, the nationalist front-runner in the race to be Japan's next prime minister, announced his candidacy yesterday, promising to defend Japan's interests and maintain the US security alliance.
Abe, currently Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's right-hand man, also reiterated his intention to set the stage for a national referendum on revising Japan's pacifist constitution.
Abe, considered a hawk on security matters and a proponent of a more assertive Japan, has a hefty lead in opinion polls for the Sept. 20 contest for president of the ruling party, a post that virtually guarantees election as prime minister.
"Japan will follow a foreign policy that makes firm demands based on national interests," Abe told ruling Liberal Democratic Party members.
"The security treaty with the US forms the center of Japan's foreign and security policy. We must work to strengthen that stance," he said.
The 51-year-old scion of a political family -- his grandfather was prime minister and his father was foreign minister -- was largely expected to continue the policies laid out by Koizumi.
Abe favors expanding the security alliance with the US, giving Japan's military more freedom to join peacekeeping and other international operations, and taking a tough stand with China and North Korea.
In speeches and a recently published book, Abe has vowed support for revising Japan's postwar pacifist Constitution and creating Japanese versions of the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency.
"We need a new constitution that fits better for how Japan should be in the 21st century," Abe said yesterday, vowing to win passage of a law allowing a referendum on the Constitution by the end of his term.
Japan's ties with Asia, however, could continue to suffer with Abe in office.
Like Koizumi, he is a vocal supporter of the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals from World War II along with Japan's 2.5 million war dead. Koizumi's pilgrimages there have enraged China and South Korea, which see the shine as a glorification of Japan's past militarism.
Abe has visited the shrine in the past and reportedly made a pilgrimage there in April. He has refused to confirm those reports, however, or to say whether he would visit it as prime minister.
Abe has also been sympathetic to a group favoring the rewriting of Japanese public school textbooks to remove self-critical references to Tokyo's World War II atrocities, claiming they are unsubstantiated and undermine patriotism.
The grandson of the Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a war criminal after World War II but came back to become prime minister, Abe graduated from Tokyo's Seikei University in 1977 and studied politics at the University of Southern California.
After a stint at Kobe Steel, Abe entered political life as an aide to his father, Shintaro Abe, who became foreign minister in 1982. After his father's death, Abe ran for parliament's lower house and was elected in 1993.
Abe shot to national prominence in 2002, when he took a lead role in pressing North Korea to surrender five Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s.
* What's at stake?
The ballot will select the next president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The candidate that wins is virtually guaranteed to become prime minister because the party commands a majority of seats in Parliament's lower house.
* Who's running?
Hawkish chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, 51, has a strong lead in the opinion polls. Others in the race include Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, 61, and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 65.
* Main issues:
Critical policy issues include mending relations with China and South Korea, revising the pacifist Constitution, facilitating Japan's economic recovery and dealing with the country's aging population.
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