Koizumi's likely successor pledges end to pacifism

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The front-runner to become Japan's next leader, Shinzo Abe, formally launched his election campaign yesterday with a controversial pledge to revise the country's pacifist constitution and beef up defence.

The hawkish 51-year-old Chief Cabinet Secretary is the runaway favourite to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he steps down at the end of this month, after five eventful years in office.

The election on 20 September will decide the future presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which carries with it the post of Japan's prime minister.

"The day has finally come," a smiling Mr Abe said yesterday before outlining a right-leaning agenda that will please his conservative base, but trouble China and South Korea.

Diplomatic relations between the three Asian powers have been frozen for much of Mr Koizumi's term over disputes concerning territory, and history.

Beijing and Seoul reacted with fury last month after Mr Koizumi made his sixth visit to the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial, where the country's Second World War leaders are enshrined.

In a speech yesterday in Hiroshima, Mr Abe promised to rewrite the 60-year-old, US-drafted constitution, strengthen prime ministerial powers and introduce "drastic education reform". All three policy initiatives have long been on the wish-list of the conservative LDP.

In a nod to the business sector, which has watched in alarm as Japan's foreign standing under Mr Koizumi has plummeted, Mr Abe also pledged to mend ties with Asian neighbours.

But his programme, and his refusal to explicitly state his position on visits to Yasukuni, means he is in for a bumpy ride to diplomatic harmony. Newspapers revealed that he had secretly visited the shrine in April.

He consistently avoids questions on Yasukuni and the issue of the guilt or innocence of the 14 convicted Second World War leaders enshrined inside, saying it is "up to historians to make such judgements".

This year, Mr Abe told Japan's parliament, the Diet, that Japan had never declared the 14 men to be war criminals, a statement that suggests "he basically does not accept the legitimacy of the Tokyo war tribunal," said former LDP secretary general Koichi Kato recently, referring to the Allied court that convicted the men after the war.

Mr Abe is a member of political "royalty" - the son of the late foreign minister Shintaro Abe, and grandson of the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was suspected of war crimes. Although apparently anointed from birth for political office, he has built his career with a sometimes sabre-rattling performance against North Korea, which in 2002 revealed a bizarre programme to kidnap Japanese citizens.

This summer, he badly rattled both nations on the Korean peninsula when he appeared to suggest that Tokyo had the right to make pre-emptive strikes on North Korea, after Pyongyang launched a series of test missiles. Japan's constitution currently bars the use of force, but conservatives in the LDP have been demanding change for years.

His opponents in the election are Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a politician cut from the same conservative cloth, and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, a former bureaucrat who opposes visits to Yasukuni.

But with Mr Abe's huge lead in the polls, and very public backing from the popular outgoing Prime Minister, neither are likely to trouble Mr Abe. With his likely election, the world can expect radical changes to Japan's postwar architecturein the coming years, and reactions in kind from Japan's wary neighbours.