Koizumi's heir apparent worries Japan's neighbours with his hawkish agenda

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The Independent Online

Japan's most important election in years will not be especially democratic; it will be closed to the general public and we already know the winner. But, for better or worse, by the end of this month the world's second-largest economy will have a new leader, and he is already causing political waves.

Tomorrow, a million members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party select a new party head who will, thanks to the LDP's dominance of the Diet, step into the giant shoes of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi next week. The public will not have their say until a general election next year.

Although technically a three-way race, the clear election front-runner and the man anointed by Mr Koizumi as his heir apparent is Shinzo Abe. Unlike Mr Koizumi, who was once considered too much of an oddball to lead the country, nobody can call Mr Abe a dark horse. The 51-year-old Chief Cabinet Secretary is a well-known conservative with an impeccable political pedigree and a history of making provocative, right-wing statements.

With his droopy, teddy-bear eyes and weak chin, Mr Abe is an unlikely looking hawk. But since coming to national prominence in 2002 when he began a tough-talking campaign against North Korea, he has championed a staunchly conservative agenda that includes reviving the military, revving up patriotism and changing the 60-year-old pacifist constitution.

After five years of the unpredictable Mr Koizumi, who wound up his term with a valedictory visit to the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial, China and South Korea desperately want relations with Japan to improve. But with Mr Abe, there is little reason for optimism. Beijing's official mouthpiece, The China Daily, said last week: "Those who aspire for better Sino-Japanese ties feel nothing but ... worried."

Once again, it is the pall of history that drives these concerns. Mr Abe has kept quiet on whether he too will make a pilgrimage to Yasukuni, although he supports prime ministerial visits and went in secret in April. As a rising political star, Mr Abe chaired a group of right-wing LDP policymakers who backed a campaign to revise high school textbooks and delete references to Second World War war crimes by the Japanese military.

Last year, he was at the centre of a censorship scandal when he admitted leaning on Japan's state broadcaster, NHK, to change a 2001 documentary on wartime "comfort women": sex slaves abducted by the military from Korea and other countries.

Mr Abe's political colours have long been nailed to the mast, as have his twin policy obsessions: rewriting the 1947 constitution and reforming the education system. And although he is being hailed in some quarters as a political breath of fresh air, both policies have been on the LDP wish-list since 1955. Written while Japan was under US occupation, the constitution and its war-renouncing Article Nine, which allows Japan to maintain "self-defence forces" but not an "army", has always sat uneasily with conservatives. Parts of the document, such as Japan's expressed determination to "trust in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world" have caused particular ire; Mr Abe calls them a degrading "signed deed of apology" which he, backed by US hawks who want Japan to square up to China, is determined to change.

Even more worryingly, Mr Abe ducks the issue of whether he will abide by Tokyo's 1995 apology to the rest of Asia, issued on the 50th anniversary of Japan's official surrender. "Japan has already apologised [for the Pacific War] more than 20 times," Mr Abe said last year. "How long do we have to keep apologising?" As the Korean Times put it: "His political success stems from a hawkish, not conciliatory, approach to his Asian neighbours. Will he be able to swallow his pride for the sake of Japan's future?"

Abe's CV

* 1954: Born into high-profile family. Father is Shintaro Abe, a former foreign minister, and grandfather former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, a suspected war criminal.

* 1977: Graduates in political science from Seikei University before studying politics at the University of Southern California.

* 1982: Begins low-level political career.

* 1993: Wins first seat in Diet, representing home prefecture of Yamaguchi.

* 2003: Appointed secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

* 2005: Appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary.