Japan's hawkish new PM names conservative cabinet

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The Independent Online

Japan began what one senior politician called a "new era" yesterday with the election of its youngest and possibly most hawkish prime minister since the Second World War.

Shinzo Abe, 52, replaced Junichiro Koizumi, who stepped down after five-and-a-half tumultuous years in office. "The sprout of reform is growing into a big tree," said Mr Koizumi in his farewell statement.

Mr Abe has pledged to beef up defence, boost patriotism and revise Japan's war-renouncing constitution. His election by 339 of 475 votes in the lower house and more than half the votes cast in the upper house was a foregone conclusion, after his selection as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party last week.

He quickly announced a conservative-heavy cabinet. Yasu-hisa Shiozaki, a Harvard- educated economist, was appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary and handed a post created to investigate abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea. The outspoken Foreign Minister Taro Aso keeps his job, and Fumio Kyuma, a veteran lawmaker who supports strong defence ties with the US, has been appointed head of the Defence Agency. The new Finance Minister is Koji Omi, 73, a former trade bureaucrat.

Mr Abe steps takes over an economy in much better shape than when his predecessor became Prime Minister in 2001, but also inherits huge problems, including economic disparities and battered diplomatic ties with South Korea and China, Japan's largest trading partner. Both countries regard the Koizumi era as a disaster, and yesterday cautiously welcomed Mr Abe. Beijing hoped he would "improve and develop Sino-Japanese relations,", whileSeoul said it hoped Mr Abe would "refrain from behaviour" that damages ties.