Missile crisis put Abe in leader spotlight

Koizumi kept to overseas sidelines as probable successor took center stage


Although the political pageantry to choose the next Liberal Democratic Party president will not officially begin until September, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe’s recent time in the crisis spotlight is giving him a huge lead over other possible candidates to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Political observers agree the North Korean missile launches earlier this month were a big plus for the government’s chief spokesman while Koizumi was on a trip to the Middle East and to the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, until last weekend.

“It is true that we don’t know what is going to happen in the political world. But so far, Mr. Abe has been seen as the single most likely successor,” said Fukashi Horie, a former political science professor at Keio University and president of Shobi University.

With the public feeling a sense of crisis due to Pyongyang’s July 5 test launches of seven missiles into the Sea of Japan, there seems to be an appetite for a strong leader to succeed Koizumi, he said.

While Koizumi has stepped back from the diplomatic spotlight, Abe took a main role along with Foreign Minister Taro Aso, another candidate for Koizumi’s job, during North Korea’s missile launches and following a U.N. Security Council resolution on them over the weekend.

After the test-launches, Abe repeatedly talked with U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley over the phone, while Aso called U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, showing off their close ties with U.S. counterparts.

TV cameras and reporters constantly followed Abe. Such coverage as well as Abe’s tough push for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang’s missile tests boosted his popularity in various media polls as the most favorite politician to be the next prime minister.

According to the major daily Yomiuri Shimbun, 45.6 percent of 1,867 people polled on July 8 and 9 said Abe was the most favored to succeed Koizumi, while 18.3 percent backed former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. Aso garnered only 4.2 percent.

Aso also played a main role after the launches. Professor Horie speculated that his comments were taken by the public as mere reflection of ideas formulated by Foreign Ministry bureaucrats.

After the crisis, Abe appears to be in full swing.

His new book “To the Beautiful Country” (“Utsukushii Kuni E”) appeared in bookstores Thursday. It appears to be his design for a future government and patriotism.

“I wrote what I want to do about Japan and what it should be. That’s what I’d like everyone, especially young people, to read about,” Abe told reporters this week.

Whether it will form his political platform, the book describes Abe’s stand on diplomatic relations, his concept of nationalism and domestic policies on issues that include education and the falling birthrate. Beginning with a memoir of his grandfather, the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, and his father, the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, the political blue blood emphasizes the importance of the Japanese-U.S. alliance.

In the book, Abe stresses his belief that it is legitimate for the prime minister to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the nation’s war dead, as well as Class-A war criminals. But at the same time, he urges China to promote its bilateral ties with Japan by separating politics from economics. Abe also wrote that Japan needs to eye broader diplomatic relations with other nations, including India and Australia.

Abe has planned a nationwide tour later this month and early August to attend town meetings with residents and express ideas he and his advisers hammered out in May.

In contrast, Fukuda has shied away from public appearances in the past months.

Fukuda, who gained popularity as a pro-China statesman, has reportedly decided not to attend the LDP Tokyo chapter’s convention next week. The meeting is expected to bring together all the prospective LDP presidential candidates.

Some Abe supporters stress his hardline stance may be what the people want.

“The next prime minister has to make tough decisions to protect the nation’s interests, and it is Abe who can do that,” Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP lawmaker who has thrown his support behind Abe, said in an interview with The Japan Times in May.

Abe said in his book there are two types of politicians in the country — those who fight and those who don’t.

Fighting politicians are those who take action for the sake of the people and the country without fear. Politicians who do not fight avoid criticism, he says.

“I have always wanted to be a fighting politician since the first time I won a Diet seat,” he writes.