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JAPAN: Shinzo Abe Will Boost Patriotism, Ties With US

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Sep 22 2006 (IPS) - The election of Shinzo Abe as head of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and prime minister designate is watched with a sense of doom by liberalists, while his backers display satisfaction that a conservative politician will now steer the country towards a dominant role in Asia.

”I vow to devote myself in working with all of you toward creating a new and beautiful nation,” Abe told his supporters, after his election, Wednesday afternoon. Abe, who turned 52 on Thursday, will become Japan’s youngest ever prime minister when he assumes office, Tuesday.

In his book ‘Towards a Beautiful Nation’ released in July, Abe outlines the need to reform Japan’s postwar peace constitution which he says was forced on the country by occupying United States troops.

Abe, who turned 52 on Thursday, sees his nation released through reform of the controversial postwar Basic Education Law, while at the same time strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance. Conservative groups say the 1947 does not foster patriotism enough while others have argued that any change could revive the sort of ultra-nationalism that led to Japanese aggression before the end of World War II.

Analysts explain the sharp divide in opinion as a sign of the ongoing crisis now facing Japan five and a half years after the still popular, outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi embarked on a vigorous reform campaign in April 2001.

”Abe faces a Japan that is at crossroads following the Koizumi reforms that has created far reaching consequences in the economic and social realms,” said Prof. Koichi Nakano, political scientist at the prestigious Sophia University in Tokyo.

Nakano says the bitter test for Abe will be his ability to find solutions for the almost five percent unemployment rate, large public debt and a growing social gap that calls for a better welfare system and Japan’s aging population that is expected to retard economic growth significantly.

A poll conducted last month by the ‘Asahi’ newspaper indicated that mending the social gap, a dramatic development in Japan that has seen its economic growth as a means for developing an equal society, is a high priority issue for the public.

On the foreign policy side Abe has much to do. A key responsibility is to warm up ties with China following Koizumi’s decision to awaken the ghosts of World War ll by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine that honours war criminals. As a result, Japan’s diplomatic relations with China and South Korea, former colonies, have sunk to an all time low.

But Abe, who visited Yasukuni in April, and whose grandfather is Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet member, is seen by Yasushi Kawasaki, author and former political journalist at NHK, Japan’s top broadcaster, as not turning the tide too much.

”As far as I am concerned, Abe’s victory takes Japan on a slippery and dangerous path,” he said in an IPS interview. He supported this viewpoint by pointing to Abe’s nationalist leanings that could whip up simmering anti-China sentiments and the fact that Abe has been quiet about his future policies that could lead to Japan down an unknown path.

Indeed, on Tuesday, Japan took the dramatic step of slapping economic sanctions on North Korea, a move that has been promoted by Abe who leads the negotiations with Pyongyang on the release of kidnapped Japanese that has made him hugely popular with the public.

On the issue of visiting Yasukuni, Abe has been keeping mum, a strategy that his supporters say shows his pragmatism that could lead to better Sino-Japan ties while allowing a conservative push towards self-respect.

”Abe is not the hardliner but rather a flexible politician,” said Takao Toshikawa, editor of political magazine ‘Inside Line’ and a close friend of Abe, predicting that he will realise a summit with China soon and a meeting of leaders as early as November in Hanoi.

Gerri Curtis, well-known political analyst at Columbia University, has explained that the election of Abe is a display of traditional Japanese politics where powerful factions within the LDP keep policies in balance. ”The focus now is on the individual which is new in Japanese politics and carries the danger of Abe resorting to nationalism to keep up his popularity when policies fail,” he has pointed out.

A failure to meet the pressing domestic issues supports this prediction. Rieko Inoue, spokeswoman for the Pacific Asia Resources Centre, a leading non-governmental organisation, is worried that Abe could raise hackles in East Asia if he refuses to acknowledge the rise of China and focuses on strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Such a stance would hinder regional cooperation that is needed to combat problems like acid rain that calls for global negotiations, she said. ”The future is dark.”

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