Japan's rising son

The groundwork for a more assertive, nationalist Japan has been well laid by the outgoing premier, Junichiro Koizumi. For one, he's groomed a successor who will become Japan's youngest prime minister ever and the first born after World War II.

Shinzo Abe is expected to win the premier's post Tuesday after being elected this week to head the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. While the flamboyant Mr. Koizumi has done much to clear the cobwebs from Japan's once-stale economy and politics, it is the more quiet Mr. Abe, the great-nephew and grandson of two famous nationalist prime ministers and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, who will likely bring an assertiveness to foreign policy. He may redefine and promote Japan's natural leadership role in Asia and the world.

For starters, he's poised to talk to China directly, something Koizumi could never do during his five years in office because of an insistence on regular visits to the controversial war memorial at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. Abe has wisely avoided saying whether he will do the same, leaving the door open for a summit with China.

The reformist Abe (pronounced ah-bay) is also eager to rewrite Japan's postwar pacifist Constitution. Crafted during the American Occupation, it is now too confining for the world's fourth-largest military in working with the West on world trouble spots and in defending Japan against the missile and nuclear threats of North Korea.

He'll likely try first to scrap a constitutional ban on mutual self- defense, an absurd provision that doesn't allow Japan to defend its closest ally, the United States, during an attack on American forces in Asia.

His credentials for standing up for Japan's national interests became prominent in 2002 when he confronted North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il by demanding the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped over the decades by North Korean spies. He was also behind tough financial sanctions set against North Korea this week in response to a July 4 battery of missile tests.

Modeling himself as a "fighting statesman," he'll need to bring the normally placid, pacifist Japanese along with him. That's not an easy task, as the top domestic concern right now is wealth inequality.

He'll likely try to change how history is taught in schools to instill a new patriotism. "Why not work up a good sweat and unlock the future by being proud of being Japanese rather than belittling ourselves?" he writes in a new book, "Toward the Beautiful Country."

Other possible innovations could invigorate Japan. He'd like to open the door to migrant workers and have students do a year of volunteer work before entering university. Most important of all, he'll continue down Koizumi's path of small government in order to whittle away at Japan's huge national debt.

The US has long encouraged Japanese leaders to take on more global duties. Koizumi, for instance, was able to send troops to Iraq.

With China on the ascendancy, Abe will need to bring Japan along faster, perhaps acting like the Britain of Asia, an equal partner for the US.

("We hold back too much," he told supporters.)

He certainly has the vision for it.

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