In late September, Japan will get a new prime minister. The post is almost sure to be filled by 51-year old Shinzo Abe, a man who has been picked out as a contender to one day lead his country from before he could barely walk.
The race to replace current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is an internal party election for presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rather than a nationwide vote.
The conservative Mr. Abe is currently the chief cabinet secretary. He holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls for preferred leader after his only major rival, 70-year old Yasuo Fukuda, declared late last month his intention not to run. Mr. Fukuda chose to bow out after North Korea launched a barrage of missiles into the Sea of Japan on July 5. The elderly statesman said he felt the tough-talking Abe would be better suited to dealing with the recalcitrant Pyongyang dictatorship.
In a country where power most often proceeds from seniority and rank, the youthful Abe owes his rapid rise to his family pedigree, as well as a nationalist shift under Mr. Koizumi that has moved Japan toward a broader use of its military and a more muscular diplomacy in East Asia. Abe is a key critic of Pyongyang for instance, and less willing to accommodate Beijing and Seoul if it is seen to compromise national interests. The alarm in Japan at North Korea's recent missile launch allowed him to showcase his ability to talk decisively about Japanese options for handling threats.
"An Abe government is looking more and more certain," says political analyst Hiromichi Shirakawa at Credit Suisse Group in Tokyo.
Koizumi's reform drive has lagged in recent months, adding to Abe's appeal as a youthful, energetic leader who could reignite the reform agenda begun by Koizumi, says Mr. Shirakawa. "There is strong support for rejuvenating not only the office of prime minister but also politics in general."
Other candidates such as Minister of Finance Sadakazu Tanigaki have also thrown their hats in the ring, but the political pundits are so positive that Abe will take the post that many not only refer to him as the "post-Koizumi" leader, but also call the current government the "pre-Abe" administration.
Koizumi is long thought to have favored Abe as his successor given their similar outlooks on a range of issues from economic reform to creating a more active role for Japan on the international stage. After extracting the economy from a 15-year slump, Koizumi will be a hard act to follow.
Compared to other leaders, Abe would enter office with few elections under his belt – meaning that his long-term vision remains somewhat of an unknown. But he already has a reputation for being hawkish on foreign policy issues. He was a key player in a campaign of criticism targeting North Korea for its past abduction of Japanese citizens. He also supports Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which pays tribute to Japan's war dead including 14 Class-A war criminals. China and South Korea view the visits as a glorification of Japan's past militarism, but Abe has backed his leader's stubborn refusal to view the matter as anything other than domestic.
Although he has recently tiptoed around the shrine issue, stating that would like to continue paying his respects to the war dead but not saying where he would do so, many believe Abe could visit Yasukuni as prime minister. Partly this is because a number of LDP politicians have said they will not support a candidate who opposes the visits.
Speculation is rife that Koizumi plans to visit the shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Polls show a majority of Japanese wants Koizumi to avoid going to Yasukuni shrine on that day. If he chooses not to visit, relations in Northeast Asia will likely remain on an even keel. After a hiatus of almost a year, Tokyo and Beijing are again holding top-level meetings and something of a thaw is said to be in the air at the lower diplomatic levels.
Abe is unlikely to adopt the lone wolf crusader image that Koizumi cultivated to battle the vested interests of politicians. Rather, Abe is an orthodox networker with a formidable range of political contacts. His father served as foreign minister in the 1980s and his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister in the 1950s when Japan's gross national income was only slightly higher than Malaysia's. Kishi was imprisoned for his role as Japan's commerce minister during the war but never tried before being released by occupation forces in 1948. Abe's great uncle, Eisuke Sato, was Japan's longest-serving prime minister from 1964 to 1972 and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in nuclear disarmament.
Abe is expected to form a cabinet of young leaders with similar political pedigrees who will likely control Japan's policymaking for the next 10 years. Many are people who received graduate educations at elite US institutions and can speak English fluently, underscoring the increasingly global outlook of Japanese lawmakers.
Names to watch include the Harvard-educated Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who worked at the Bank of Japan before entering politics, and Yale-educated Kuniko Inoguchi, who already has a ministerial post despite being in her first elected term. Georgetown graduate Ichita Yamamoto is a key Abe supporter and may get a cabinet post despite (or perhaps because of) his extremely hawkish views on foreign policy. Fellow Georgetown man Taro Kono, son of a former LDP party leader, will also wield considerable influence.
This group of politicians will inherit the mantle of economic reform from Koizumi and are expected to continue the trend toward implementing a smaller government. The new generation favor cutting public expenditure over lifting taxes, says chief economist Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki at Sojitz Research Institute, a private think tank in Tokyo. "They will push for policy to be based on the latest theories and insist that the economy be coherently managed in a hands-on fashion."
A recent poll by Nippon Television Network showed that pension and healthcare reform were the top issues the public wants the next government to tackle. Other areas of voter concern are the economy and regional security, given that Japan is within range of North Korean missiles.