Born To Run

The prime minister calls a snap election, he wins by a landslide and his party returns to Parliament with a huge majority. What happens next? Certainly not a public struggle over who's going to succeed the leader, right?

Wrong. Japan's political elite is already reading the tea leaves, trying to figure out who's going to become the next prime minister in September 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi, the man who guided his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to a momentous victory at the polls three months ago, must step down. The move is mandated by the LDP's internal rules, which say that Koizumi has to relinquish his post as party leader after the second of his three-year terms expires next fall. To be sure, with all the political capital he's amassed, Koizumi could probably get away with gaming the party regulations. But, given his past record of actually doing what he says he'll do, few in Tokyo doubt that the country will soon have a new leader.

And right now the smart money says it will be Shinzo Abe, 51, the man Koizumi recently named to the high-profile post of chief cabinet secretary--the top government spokesperson. So is he a candidate for the job? "It is a great honor to be mentioned in that way," Abe told NEWSWEEK during a recent interview. "For a politician, receiving strong support from the people means having a stronger position to carry out policies. But right now my job is to support Mr. Koizumi's cabinet--a job that is huge and quite heavy. I think I should concentrate on my job for now."

Knowing how circumspect even ambitious Japanese pols can be, we'll take that as a yes. Not that the question really requires an answer. In a nation where many members of the political caste are known as seshu-giin , or hereditary politicians, Abe's pedigree virtually predestines him to higher office. His father, Shintaro Abe, served as secretary-general of the LDP and ultimately rose to the position of minister of Foreign Affairs under Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s. Shinzo Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, who was first imprisoned by the Allies as a Class A war criminal in 1945 and then, in a typical cold-war twist, rose to become prime minister (and a staunch supporter of the United States) in the 1950s. It was Kishi, more than perhaps anyone else, who sealed Japan's postwar alliance with America. And Shinzo Abe, a friend of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, is not shy about invoking that bit of family history during his occasional visits to Washington.

Nor is Abe hesitant about demonstrating his conservative bona fides. He first made his name with voters by taking a hard-line position on an issue of great sensitivity in Japan: the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea. He's been known to poke fun at postwar Japan's reflexively pacifist principles, saying that the abductions demonstrated the naivete of a constitutional assumption--namely, that neighboring countries automatically deserve Japan's trust. So it's no surprise that he strongly favors revising the pacifism plank in Japan's postwar Constitution--and he doesn't stop there. "It is not just about Article Nine," he told NEWSWEEK. "I think we need to revise the Constitution as a whole."

Abe points out that the original document was drawn up by a small group of Americans in the occupation government in a few days. Now, he says, it's time for the Japanese people to rewrite the entire document so that it conforms more closely to their own contemporary needs--one of which is a more normal military. (At a recent conference in Tokyo, Abe said that Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood.) "I think we need to change our Constitution with our own hands," he says. Does he think that revising Article Nine could provoke anxiety among Japan's neighbors? "Not at all. Of course, we'll have to explain ourselves fully, and not create any misunderstanding." But, he makes clear, the decision is Japan's to make, and, beyond what he terms "explaining," he doesn't seem particularly eager to assuage fears about the move.

In the race to succeed Koizumi, Abe certainly benefits from strong name recognition, and he's popular with the public. In a recent poll by the newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 41 percent of the respondents wanted him to be the next prime minister. Still, the race is a long way from over. Though he's made his reputation primarily because of his forceful views on foreign policy, Abe has lately been striving to demonstrate his enthusiasm for Koizumi's economic-reform program. He has explicitly aligned himself with Koizumi on the two hot-button issues of the moment: preventing a premature tightening of monetary policy (a battle with the Bank of Japan) and preventing a rise in the consumption tax (favored by the Finance Ministry).

Despite his high profile as a member of Parliament and senior LDP boss, Abe has had relatively little experience in senior government. So Koizumi's decision to promote him to the powerful position of chief cabinet secretary during a post-election cabinet reshuffle in October was interpreted as a significant endorsement. In his new capacity, Abe serves not only as the primary government spokesman but also as Koizumi's policymaking gatekeeper. He coordinates the flow of information into the government from ministries and intelligence agencies. Even better for Abe, perhaps, is the fact that his new office is just down the hall from Koizumi's, enabling the two men to compare notes several times a day. One senior government official describes Koizumi as "tutoring" his colleague in the art of prime ministering.

Abe is by no means a shoo-in to replace Koizumi. There are plenty of rivals for the top job. One of them, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, is a relatively moderate technocrat who's been counting on Japan's economic revival to boost him into the prime ministership. The country's economic forecast is good, but Tanigaki supports a hike in the consumption tax, which could hurt his prospects with voters.

Some analysts think that the quirky Koizumi might favor an outsider, such as female Environment Minister Yuriko Koike, who proved a highly effective candidate in September's election. But considering the LDP's drift to the right in recent years, Abe's toughest competitor is more likely to be Taro Aso, the pugnacious conservative who was promoted to foreign minister at the same time that Abe assumed his new job. Aso is notorious in South Korea for making remarks that downplayed Japan's colonial rule there. And, more recently, he irked the Chinese by vigorously defending Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Tokyo war memorial that honors the souls of Japan's wartime dead (including 14 Class A war criminals).

And what does Abe think about Japan's spat with its neighbors over Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni? "I think it is a mistake to pick one problem and let it define all the other issues," he says. "In the area of the economy, we have been maintaining good relations with China as well as with South Korea." The idea, he says, that Yasukuni visits represent a revival of Japanese militarism "is a total misunderstanding." It should be clear to Japan's neighbors, he insists, that Japan is a full-fledged democracy, with no ill intentions toward anyone in the region.

Yet when asked about the possibility of creating an alternate memorial where the dead could be honored without the war criminals, Abe refuses to relent: "That is something that should be decided by the Japanese people. We cannot allow foreign countries to instruct us on how to pay our respects and pray for the souls of our war dead. That would be self-evident in any other country in the world." In short, not exactly heartening words for those who hope that Koizumi's departure might ease Japan's diplomatic standoff with its neighbors. If the views of Abe and other contenders for the top job are any indication, Japan's next prime minister is not likely to back down on either reform, or on reasserting the country's leadership in Asia.

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