Sun, Oct 29, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Japan's conservative Abe making a surprising turn to the political center


Shinzo Abe rose to become postwar Japan's youngest prime minister by hewing to a conservative, nationalist agenda. He stood tough against China and North Korea and championed the right's touchstone causes on history.

But in the month that he has been prime minister, Abe, 52, has made a beeline toward the center, reaching out to China and South Korea as this region confronted North Korea's recent nuclear test.

He has made surprising, if grudging, admissions about Japan's militarist past, assuaging the regional tensions that emerged under his predecessor as prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.

It is too early to tell whether Abe's month in power is evidence of an innate pragmatism, or whether he is consolidating his power before pushing a more conservative agenda.

Tenative praise

But he has reassured voters in Japan and officials in Washington, won tentative praise from skeptics in China and South Korea and unsettled the Japanese right.

Abe has made back-to-back visits to China and South Korea. Both countries had refused to hold summit meetings with Japan because of Koizumi's annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, the Shinto memorial for Japan's war dead and war criminals that some consider a potent symbol of Japanese militarism in Asia.

Japan's deteriorating relations with China had government officials and policy makers in Asia and the US worried. Both sides had reached an impasse, with Beijing saying it would not meet Koizumi unless he stopped visiting the shrine, and Koizumi insisting that he would not stop.

Abe, a longtime staunch defender of the visits, has now adopted a softer, ambiguous policy. Abe says he will neither confirm nor deny whether he has prayed at Yasukuni, while letting his aides inform the news media that he has, in fact, visited the shrine.

"His position on Yasukuni is a symbol of conceding to China and South Korea's demands," said Kim Ho-sup, an expert on Japanese-South Korean relations at Chung Ang University in Seoul. "He seemed hawkish, but after he became prime minister, he handled relations with Asian neighbors and issues like Yasukuni more diplomatically than Koizumi."

"His visits to China and South Korea were very successful," Kim said.

Michael Green, who handled Asian affairs at the US National Security Council until last December and is now at Georgetown University, said Abe has been "able to recast" Japan's relations with its neighbors away from Yasukuni.

"It was smart domestically because it reassured the center that he was able to deal with neighboring states," Green said. "It was smart internationally because it gave Japan leverage to deal with North Korea. It was smart with the US because, even though the US government wouldn't interfere on the history problem, the Japanese government could sense that there was growing unease in Washington about the state of relations between China and Japan."

Conservative base

Abe built a conservative base by leading efforts in parliament to revise school textbooks, which the right argues dwell masochistically on Japan's militarist past, and by casting doubts on the validity of the postwar Tokyo trials that assigned guilt to Japan's wartime leaders.

Starting in 2002, he rose to national stardom by being tough on North Korea and China.

But in the last month, Abe acknowledged that wartime leaders, including his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, had "great responsibility" for the war and its damages in Asia. Abe said he accepted two landmark statements made by Japanese governments in the 1990s, apologizing to Asia for Japan's imperialist past and recognizing the Japanese army's role in drafting wartime sex slaves.

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