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Politician Says Japan Should Revise Pacifist Constitution

NORIMITSU ONISHI / NY Times | September 1 2006

Shinzo Abe, the nationalist politician who is favored to become Japan’s next prime minister, said today that Japan should revise its pacifist constitution, as he formally declared his candidacy in an internal party election scheduled for later this month.

In his declaration to run for the presidency of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Abe, the chief cabinet secretary, also said that Japan should seek a larger role in the world and further strengthen its alliance with the United States.

“As the next L.D.P. president, I’d like to take the lead to put revision of the constitution on the political agenda,” Mr. Abe said at a party convention in Hiroshima.

“I’d like to draft a new constitution with my own hands,” he added.

The current constitution, which renounces war and does not allow Japan to possess a full-fledged military, was drafted by American officials during the postwar occupation.

Mr. Abe is almost certain to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who will retire later this month in accordance with party rules. Succeeding Mr. Koizumi in the party’s top post would automatically make Mr. Abe the nation’s leader as well, because the Liberal Democrats control of the lower house of parliament, which chooses the prime minister.

Two other politicians have also declared their candidacy in the party election, which is due to be held on Sept. 20th: Taro Aso, the hawkish foreign minister, and Sadakazu Tanigaki, the finance minister, who has emphasized rebuilding Japan’s strained relations with China and South Korea.

Opinion polls suggest that neither of them has a chance of seriously challenging Mr. Abe, who remains the leading choice of the general public and, more importantly, the lawmakers and members who will cast ballots.

Japan has been adjusting itself in recent weeks to Mr. Abe’s apparently inevitable victory, especially after Yasuo Fukuda, a veteran lawmaker who might have seriously contested the post, decided earlier this summer not to run.

Mr. Koizumi is said to have long favored Mr. Abe, whom he appointed as chief cabinet secretary, the government’s second most visible position after prime minister. As Mr. Koizumi’s interest in government seemed to wane in his last weeks in office, Mr. Abe appeared already to have grabbed the baton.

His image as Mr. Koizumi’s heir apparent was further solidified after North Korea tested long-range missiles in early July. The incident played to Mr. Abe’s strength as a hawk, and he wasted no time in suggesting that Japan should debate whether to acquire the military capacity for a pre-emptive strike.

At 51, Mr. Abe would become postwar Japan’s youngest prime minister, and the first born after World War II ended. He is considered less experienced than his two rivals, having held no cabinet position before his current one.

Until a few years ago, Mr. Abe was popularly known chiefly for being a son of Shintaro Abe, a Liberal Democrat who almost became prime minister, and the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, an official of the wartime Tojo government who was suspected of war crimes but never tried, and who eventually became prime minister after the war.

But Mr. Abe shot to political stardom by taking a hard-line stance against North Korea, which acknowledged in 2002 that it had kidnapped several Japanese citizens in the 1970’s and 1980’s. By articulating popular anger — fanning it, critics say — against the North, Mr. Abe became popular for his perceived strong leadership.

Experts predict that Mr. Abe will hew to Mr. Koizumi’s domestic and foreign policies. Like Mr. Koizumi, Mr. Abe has taken a hard stance against China and South Korea, which have refused to hold summits with Japan because of Mr. Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including some leading war criminals.

Mr. Abe, who has staunchly supported the visits, is regarded in Japan as being more of a hardliner than Mr. Koizumi. But where Mr. Koizumi has accepted the validity of the postwar Tokyo trials in judgment of Japan’s wartime leaders, Mr. Abe has not.

Mr. Koizumi led efforts to change the Household Imperial Law to allow women to ascend the imperial throne; Mr. Abe opposed the proposal.

Over the years, Mr. Abe has backed nationalist scholars in their efforts to revise school textbooks that they say overemphasize Japan’s wartime misdeeds.

In foreign policy, Mr. Abe has stressed building stronger ties with Australia, India, and other countries that he says share the values of democracy and human rights with Japan — comments that have been interpreted as putting distance between Japan and China.

Like Mr. Koizumi, Mr. Abe has emphasized that strengthening Japan’s alliance with the United States, more than anything else, will guarantee Japan’s prosperity.

“The Japan-U.S. alliance is the most important thing for our country’s diplomacy and national security,” he said today.

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