SHIMONOSEKI, Yamaguchi Pref. – He once mentioned his favorite brand of ice cream on a television program and sales in Tokyo went crazy. Not bad for a man who is neither film star, pop idol nor David Beckham.
When Shinzo Abe, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, recently returned to his hometown of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, hundreds of locals, young and old, excitedly turned out to greet him.
As No. 2 leader of the ruling party, Abe is spearheading its campaign for the Nov. 9 Lower House general election.
Many pundits believe the LDP’s success will largely depend on his appearances, which often draw more attention than those of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, president of the party.
Abe, 49, in only his third term as a House of Representatives member, has suddenly become the party’s rising star, in part because of his firm stand against North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals.
Speaking to 2,500 supporters in Shimonoseki, the tall, well-groomed Abe followed his usual script.
He denounced the Democratic Party of Japan, saying that its leader, Naoto Kan, “has made almost no remarks on North Korean issues.”
“He can’t because he has never handled these issues,” he said. “We should not entrust Japan’s future to this man.”
But before making a homecoming appearance, the first thing Abe did was visit his father’s grave in the town of Yuya, in the same prefecture.
“I will fulfill all my duties and win this election,” Abe said there, according to what he later told reporters. He was addressing the spirit of his late father, Shintaro, a former foreign minister.
In contrast to his predecessor, Taku Yamasaki, 66, whose image has been tarnished by a sex scandal, Abe’s popularity has snowballed since Koizumi took office.
After securing another term as LDP president last month, Koizumi handed the outspoken Abe a birthday present by appointing him secretary general. It was a move aimed at gaining support ahead of the election, just as he did when he became prime minister in 2001 with the help of Makiko Tanaka, whom he subsequently appointed foreign minister, only to later sack.
The DPJ argues that Abe, a former deputy government spokesman who has never held a ministerial post, is politically inexperienced and little more than a campaign poster boy.
But Abe’s public approval owes not merely to his youth in the geriatric world of Japanese politics or to his balance of soft image with resolute attitude on North Korea.
Despite Koizumi’s touted efforts to transform the LDP into a more modern party, Abe’s popularity owes largely to the legacy of the old LDP, which has had a virtually unbroken grip on power ever since it was founded in 1955.
His family background alone reveals that few lawmakers have closer ties to the mainstream of the country’s political establishment.
Abe is the grandson of the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was also the first secretary general of the LDP. His great-uncle was the late Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Kishi’s younger brother.
Many other big political names, including Shigeru Yoshida, one of Japan’s most famous postwar politicians, are also linked to Abe’s family.
In fact, on the day Abe addressed his supporters in Shimonoseki, he also hastily moved to the other side of the prefecture to stump for LDP candidate Shinji Sato, 71, the late prime minister’s son.
Sato, a former international trade and industry minister, was defeated by a newcomer from the DPJ in the last Lower House election, in 2000, and is trying to win the seat back.
Abe’s speech on his behalf was more heated than usual. But the mild-mannered lawmaker, having acquired plenty of experience on TV, also knew how to use his charm to get his message across.
“The DPJ’s election pledges are a bunch of empty wishes,” Abe told a rally for Sato. “You probably know that I love ice cream. . . . What the DPJ says is like ice cream in a store window. It looks tasty but you can’t eat it.
“Moreover, this ice cream is made out of wax, so if you eat it you will have stomach trouble,” he said, to the delight and amusement of the audience, mostly old people.
Such a relaxed atmosphere was unthinkable just a few days before Abe’s visit to the city, as local LDP members and the party headquarters in Tokyo had different ideas over who should run in the Yamaguchi No. 2 single-seat constituency.
LDP prefectural assembly members were not in favor of fielding the elderly Sato and were eager to push Nobuo Kishi, the 44-year-old grandson of the late prime minister.
It is not widely known, but Kishi is actually a younger brother of Abe, who became part of the Kishi family shortly after he was born. Kishi has expressed a desire to run in next summer’s House of Councilors election.
But there are many voters with little interest in politics who like Abe not just for his illustrious roots but because he has the common touch.
“After Mr. Abe became secretary general, I think women older than me tended to talk more about politics,” said 26-year-old Akiko Yoshimura from Shimonoseki.
“I think one-third of them are just bringing him up in conversation because it’s a fad at the moment.”
Noboru Maeda, whose family has been part of the Abe family support group for more than 40 years, said he thinks Abe’s mild and plain personality is the secret of his popularity.
“I don’t think he’ll have any problems winning his own race here,” said Maeda, 56, head of a Shimonoseki seafood firm. “But the real game of whether he can become a good politician starts from now.”
And Abe himself has no illusions. Asked what he thinks of his recent celebrity, he told reporters in the harbor city, “I know very well that this kind of popularity does not last forever.”
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