The three candidates seeking to replace Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began all-out campaigning yesterday with a policy debate and their first joint public speeches.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso officially registered their candidacies on Friday to head the governing Liberal Democratic Party.
The LDP leader -- to be chosen in a Sept. 20 party ballot -- is virtually guaranteed to be elected as the next prime minister by parliament later this month because of the party's strong majority.
Abe, the front-runner, said during yesterday's policy debate at LDP headquarters that Japan's economy would benefit if the country more aggressively promotes free trade across Asia.
"By promoting free trade and economic cooperation, we can pump up Asia's economic growth to benefit Japan's growth," Abe said.
"If we keep up the effort, there is still room for Japan's economic growth," he said.
Koizumi, who took office in April 2001, has said he will step down when his current term as ruling party head ends at the end of this month.
The candidates were to make joint campaign speeches later yesterday at Tokyo's Akihabara district, the first of five public speeches.
Abe renewed his calls yesterday for Japan to build a stronger military and to push ahead with economic reforms. He also reiterated his intention to revise Japan's US-drafted 1947 pacifist Constitution, which renounces the use of force in settling international disputes.
"I seek to draft a constitution of our own that fits Japan in the 21st century," Abe said.
"I represent the postwar generation ... and I will get the plan going as part of a political schedule," he said.
Abe, 51, known for his assertive stance toward China and North Korea, said he will seek to improve relations with Japan's Asian neighbors and pledged to preserve Japan's alliance with the US.
"By keeping a close Japan-US alliance, we can contribute to the peace in Asia and elsewhere in the world," Abe said.
Koizumi's annual visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead -- including convicted war criminals -- have strained ties with China and South Korea, which suffered atrocities under Japan's wartime army. Both countries have suspended summits with Koizumi in protest.
Abe vowed to attempt to resume talks with Chinese and South Korean leaders.
"It's important that both of us make efforts," he said.
"We need to bare our chests and talk to each other, especially when there are problems," he said.
Abe also has worshipped at Yasukuni Shrine many times and has backed Koizumi's visits. But he hasn't said whether he would make pilgrimages if he becomes prime minister.
Tanigaki, who has criticized Koizumi's Asian diplomacy and opposed the shrine visits, is presenting himself as the candidate with economic credentials who could also mend Japan's foreign relations.
"If Japan continues to remain a leader in Asia, we must be considerate of the feelings of our neighbors, not just those of the Japanese," Tanigaki said.
Aso passed up a chance to comment on the shrine issue yesterday and focused on the need for economic reforms and for bolstering the defense alliance with Washington.
Public opinion polls have put Abe far ahead of his two rivals.