Never mind that Shinzo Abe, front-runner to succeed Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi next month, has a hawkish stance in foreign policy almost assured to aggravate Japan's already rocky relations with its Asian neighbors.
What will dictate the race to lead Japan as the next head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is an ability to work a crowd with sound bites and tough talk, much like the outgoing prime minister -- which analysts say is likely to hand a Sept. 20 election as party president, and the prime minister's job, to the popular Abe over his more dovish opponents.
"In Japanese politics today, a leader's charisma has become what matters most," said Jiro Yamaguchi, political scientist at Hokkaido University. "After five years of Koizumi, the public has gotten used to having a charismatic prime minister."
Koizumi is one of Japan's longest serving prime ministers thanks in part to his populist appeal to average Japanese. Since an LDP-led coalition controls both houses of parliament, whoever wins election as the party's president is all but guaranteed the premiership when Koizumi steps down on Sept. 30.
It hasn't hurt hard-liner Abe's chances that as government spokesman he announced North Korea's missile tests earlier this month and made clear the strong Japanese reaction to a public nervous at being in missile range. Though Abe, 51, has not declared his candidacy, he has given plenty of hints he wants the top job, and opinion polls show he is the most popular choice.
"Like Koizumi, Abe's popularity isn't so much about his policies," said Minoru Morita, a political commentator based in Tokyo. "It's about Abe as a person -- his ease with the media, youth, personality and handsome looks."
Abe's many recent media appearances have included a prime-time comedy show where he showed off his archery skills. In the book Toward a Beautiful Country, published earlier this month and seen as a campaign platform, Abe discussed world politics but also critiqued the Hollywood movie Million Dollar Baby and France's World Cup team.
The populist turn in Japanese politics comes at an unfortunate time when the country needs sound policies to tackle deteriorating relations with its neighbors, as well as a shaky economic recovery.
Relations with China, a top Japanese trade partner and economic powerhouse, have plunged to their lowest in decades -- hurt by Koizumi's repeated worship at a war shrine with close links to Japan's past militarism, territorial spats and a dispute over undersea gas deposits.
Abe, a grandson of wartime Cabinet member and postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, has staunchly supported Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, though he has not said whether he would worship there as prime minister.
Yasukuni honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals executed after World War II, and Koizumi's visits have irked China and other Asian neighbors. Beijing has refused top-level talks since the leader's last visit in October, accusing him of glorifying Japan's militaristic past.
On Friday, Abe disparaged Beijing's criticism of the visits as political posturing.
"Is it correct for China to refuse summits just because of Yasukuni?" Abe asked at an LDP policy debate that also brought together two other likely candidates for the premiership, Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki.
"To protect our national interest, we must seize the initiative in our foreign policy," Abe said.
Abe's new book is also criticizes China and urges a more assertive diplomacy.
"There are politicians willing to fight, and those who aren't," Abe says. "A fighting politician takes action for his country and people, without fearing reprisal."
Abe's supporters had earlier worried that his blatant hawkishness might hurt his run for prime minister. There are critics even within the LDP who see Koizumi's visits as an unnecessary provocation of an economically important neighbor.
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