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Abe suggests he’ll still go to Yasukuni in new post

Top government spokesman is trying to combine his conservative politics with diplomatic tact

by Reiji Yoshida

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, a front runner to be the next prime minister, hinted Wednesday he will keep visiting the contentious Yasukuni Shrine.

Abe also said that, as the top government spokesman, he accepts the government’s official view in 1995 that Japan caused “tremendous damage and suffering” to people in Asia “through its colonial rule and aggression” during the 1930s and 1940s.

“Many people have paid visits (to Yasukuni) to pray for the people who died for the country, pray for their peace and to show respect for them,” Abe said during a group media interview. “I am one of those people, and I’d like to hold onto that spirit.”

Abe has been one of the most vocal conservative politicians supporting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s contentious visits to the Tokyo shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead.

But since his appointment as chief Cabinet secretary, Abe has become more careful when commenting about the issue, apparently to reduce the repercussions from Japan’s Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.

But his recent comments show him trying to walk the fine line of accepting the official government view and maintaining his reputation as a hardline conservative.

“It’s true that (Japan) caused tremendous damage to the Chinese people and left them with deep scars,” said Abe, 51.

“We have deeply searched our souls over it, and Japan’s steps in the postwar period are based on that” soul searching, he claimed, referring to a 1995 statement by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who expressed remorse over Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” during the first half of the 20th century.

Because of his often hardline diplomatic positions, particularly toward North Korea, Abe has enjoyed great popularity with the Japanese public and ranks at the top in recent media polls asking who should be the next prime minister.

Asked about his intention to become the next prime minister, Abe, carefully choosing his words, said only that right now, he must concentrate on his current Cabinet post, whose job is to support the prime minister.

As deputy secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party before his appointment, Abe repeatedly called for economic sanctions against North Korea to resolve issues related to the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang’s agents.

But during the interview, Abe would only say that the government was making its “best efforts” to change North Korean’s stance and economic sanctions were not the purpose of diplomatic negotiations.

Abe is the second son of the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, who before his 1991 death from pancreatic cancer was also seen as and hoped to be a prime minister candidate after the 1987-1989 administration of Noboru Takeshita.

According to Hirotsugu Akiu, a longtime friend of Shinzo Abe, “the starting point” of his conservative politics was his affection for his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was in power when the Japanese-U.S. security treaty was revised in 1960.

While in college in the 1970s, Abe often argued that the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 should be revised so Japan can defend itself on its own strength, Akiu said.

“At that time, the situation was different. The Constitution was treated as the golden rule and discussion about its revision was considered outrageous,” said Akiu, who shared Abe’s view despite the prevailing public opinion at the time that Japan should remain pacifist.

Abe’s views “have been greatly influenced by the his grandfather in such areas as diplomacy and security affairs,” Akiu said.

Today many Japanese view Kishi’s work to strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance positively. But in the 1970s, he was quite unpopular and criticized for strengthening Japan’s “subordination” to the U.S., Akiu said.

Kishi was forced to step down after the security treaty was rammed through the Diet. His determination to stick to his political views and not be swayed by public opposition might have made Abe a determined conservative hardliner, many observers have said.