Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe just celebrated his 52nd birthday. And he could not have wished for a better present: The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for the past six decades, overwhelmingly voted him in as its new president, replacing retiring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Since the LDP controls the Lower House of the Diet, Abe on Sept. 26 will become Prime Minister and assume stewardship of the world's second largest economy.
Like his predecessor and mentor Koizumi, Abe belongs to a political family dynasty that goes back three generations: his grandfather, an accused war criminal, went on to be Prime Minister in the late 1950s, and his grand-uncle took the same job a decade later. His father was Foreign Minister.
Like Koizumi, Abe comes to power with a lot of media worship and fanfare. He's riding a wave of public adulation, and there will be great expectations attached to his premiership.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON.
Abe is no slouch as a political tactician. His popularity owes much to his hawkish stance toward North Korea and China, and he has portrayed himself as a true economic reformer, though that remains to be seen. He's telegenic, charismatic, talks of "creating a new and beautiful nation," and is an advocate of revising the section of Japan's constitution that prevents the country from using military means to settle international disputes.
Abe is Japan's youngest postwar Prime Minister and the first one born after World War II. He represents his generation with energy but is untested as a leader and has benefited from Japan's largely uncritical media.
Abe served as his father's secretary until his death in 1991, and first entered politics in 1993. That's a common practice in a country where sons and daughters routinely inherit their parents' parliamentary seats with the endorsement of the party. He never took a cabinet position until appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary last year.
Abe has given few hints on how he will manage the country's economy, and the social disparity that grew under Koizumi. Nor has there been much meaningful debate about these domestic issues. Abe's popularity has shielded him from any tough questions.
NOT A FOLLOWER.
An extremely hawkish line on North Korea several years ago, over the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang's secret agents, brought Abe to the nation's attention. The recent missile tests by North Korea have further enhanced his position at a time when the Japanese public is concerned about its security.
Unlike Koizumi, who has pursued a close relationship with the U.S.—whether by sending Japanese troops to Iraq or impersonating Elvis—Abe has declared that he wants Japan to be more than just a follower in international affairs. He thinks Japan should be in the ranks of rule-setting states.
Abe has made it clear that he intends to revise Japan's constitution, originally written by the U.S. after the war, within the next five years. Japan's military, one of the strongest and probably the most technically sophisticated in the world, is likely to see its status raised from the rank of an agency to a ministry under Abe.
WAR SHRINE WAFFLE.
Also unlike Koizumi, who has isolated Japan diplomatically in Asia by insisting on worshiping at the Yasukuni Shrine where war criminals are buried among the war dead, Abe has shown some flexibility in how he will handle relations with China and South Korea. Both countries view the Yasukuni Shrine as a symbol of past Japanese militarism and so have stopped holding summits with Koizumi.
Abe has not made a pledge to the right wing of the LDP, as Koizumi did five years ago, that he would worship at Yasukuni annually. Stating earlier that he would pay homage to Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the date of Japan's defeat in World War II, Abe has dodged the question of whether he would do so as the Prime Minister.
Instead, Abe revealed that he made a private visit to Yasukuni back in April, clearly a calculated move to satisfy the conservatives of the LDP. This will also give him time to repair ties with Beijing without the shadow of Yasukuni. A Japan-China summit would certainly boost Abe's international standing, as most Japanese want to improve relations with China and South Korea.
But whether true reconciliation between Japan and its neighboring countries can be sustained under the Abe administration is uncertain. Abe has been a core supporter of a revisionist history textbook that glosses over Japan's past militarism. He sees it as enhancing Japanese patriotism.
He has openly questioned the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal that prosecuted Japanese war criminals at the end of World War II. And in recent LDP leadership debates, he was the only candidate who refused to use the word "aggression" to describe Japanese war activities in the Asia Pacific in the last century.
Even the U.S. is taking a closer look at where all these history-related issues are heading. In a House of Representatives Committee on International Relations hearing last week, Republican Chairman Henry Hyde demanded that the Yasukuni Shrine change its war exhibits to reflect the facts. Meanwhile, ranking Democratic member Tom Lantos has compared the Japanese Prime Minister's worshiping of war criminals as equal to honoring Nazi leaders.
With Koizumi stepping down, all eyes are on Abe. Will he look back into Japan's troubled history for inspiration, as Koizumi has done? Or will he look into the future by building bridges with Japan's neighbors as the new leader of a generation?