The Man to Watch in Japan


By Brian Bremner Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's triumphant win in Japan's Sept. 11 general election probably elicited plenty of winces in Beijing. True, Japan's foreign policy posture toward China was very much a sideshow in this contest, which drew a record turnout and restored an absolute majority for the Liberal Democratic Party in the Lower House of the Japanese Diet. But it was also a confirmation of sorts for the hawkish PM -- and could open the way for Koizumi to be succeeded by an LDP figure even more confrontational when it comes to China: Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a telegenic and immensely popular political figure, is acting-secretary general of the LDP. There are other pretenders to the throne, such as former Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki. But Abe played a key role in the LDP landslide, has enormous street credibility with the Japanese public, and is considered a likely choice to succeed Koizumi, whose term as party President (and effectively Prime Minister) is set to end in September, 2006.

It's possible that the LDP could ask Koizumi to extend his premiership, which started in April, 2001, beyond that point. He's only 63 and may be tempted. But at some point, barring a major political setback or scandal, Koizumi likely will groom a successor, and the betting is that it will be Abe.

PRIVATIZATION PUSH. Abe's political pedigree and business and international experience would help the LDP maintain its near-undisputed grip on power in Japanese politics. His father, Shintaro Abe, was a former secretary general of the LDP, arguably the most powerful position next to Prime Minister. And his grandfather was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

A graduate of Seikei University's Law Dept., Abe studied in the U.S. at the University of Southern California and worked in the private sector for Kobe Steel during the late '70s and early '80s. The 50-year-old Abe has been one of Koizumi's biggest supporters on economic reform -- privatization of Japan's postal savings system, tighter government spending to rein in Japan's massive budget deficits, and an overhaul of the country's state-run pension system.

Even more important, Abe has raised his international profile both in Beijing and Washington with his right-leaning views on Japan's need for a more assertive national security policy, given potential regional threats from North Korea and China. Indeed, a great deal of his popularity in Japan is due to his work in drawing attention to the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, and he has advocated tough economic sanctions against Pyongyang if current diplomatic efforts aimed at deterring its development of nuclear weapons go nowhere.

SIGNIFICANT SIGNALS. Abe has been far more blunt and confrontational than Koizumi in accusing China of stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment to deflect attention from political oppression and economic problems on the mainland. In a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington last May, he pointed out that "there are many Chinese people having disaffection and discontent, and also, they do not have any political freedom there."

He also made a point of visiting Japan's Yasukuni Shrine with other LDP leaders in mid-August (Koizumi took a pass) to mark the 60th anniversary of the country's surrender in World War II. Visits to the shrine, devoted to memory of Japan's war dead -- including Japanese war-time leaders -- is an explosive issue for China and other Asia nations such as South Korea. Abe's basic position is that Japan has apologized ad infinitum for its past transgressions and has every right to honor its fallen soldiers.

From China's perspective, the Koizumi era, characterized by a shift to the right on such foreign policy issues as closer military cooperation with the U.S. and a stronger stance against Beijing over contested energy deposits in the East China Sea, may signal Japan's possible reversion to aggression. At the very least, it means a concerted effort to check Chinese influence in the region. Either way, it means plenty of friction in the months ahead for these two major Asia powers.

NEW ROLE? No doubt Abe would disagree with that, as he has stressed that trade and capital flows between the two countries are vital to both economies. However, both Abe and Koizumi have made clear that Japan won't play doormat to a China willing to use the past to score diplomatic points and further its interests at Japan's expense.

The LDP's landslide victory suggests the Japanese public is very much behind that sentiment. Abe has talked at length about revising Japan's war-renouncing constitution to give its military forces a bigger role in international peace-keeping operations, overseeing regional security hot spots, and looking out for the country's interests.

For anyone interested in Japanese politics, Abe is certainly a figure to watch closely. Make no mistake: Plenty inside Chinese President Hu Jintao's government most assuredly already are.

Bremner is Asia regional editor for BusinessWeek in Hong Kong


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