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In the race to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Sanae Takaichi is fast emerging as a contender as she takes aim at becoming Japan’s first female prime minister.

The former internal affairs and communications minister has made no secret of her desire to run in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election slated for later this month. Now, with reports swirling that LDP heavyweight and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to throw his influential support behind her, the prospect of her being able to secure the endorsement of at least 20 LDP parliamentarians — a prerequisite for officially entering the race — suddenly appears within reach.

In fact, reports surfaced Sunday that Takaichi is now confident about securing the signatures of 20 members and has solidified her intention to run.

Abe’s backing, if true, would be a huge advantage for Takaichi, who isn’t affiliated with any of the LDP’s intraparty factions.

An endorsement for the 60-year-old Nara native from the nation’s longest-serving prime minister is hardly a surprise given how closely the two are ideologically aligned. Takaichi, like Abe, is known as a favorite of conservatives with hawkish views on defense and diplomacy. Both have served as members of a nonpartisan group of lawmakers supporting far-right organization Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi).

During her time as internal affairs minister, Takaichi made headlines with her visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Visits by key government figures to the shrine, which honors the souls of millions of Japanese soldiers who perished in modern wars as well as Class-A war criminals, often provoke the ire of China and South Korea, which see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.

Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi speaks to reporters on Aug. 15 after she visited Yasukuni Shrine. | KYODO
Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi speaks to reporters on Aug. 15 after she visited Yasukuni Shrine. | KYODO

Takaichi is basing her platform on continuity from the Abe era.

In her book due to hit shelves later this month, she will reportedly trumpet the “New Abenomics” — a reference to the former leader’s eponymous policy mix — in an apparent bid to portray herself as a devout follower of the former leader.

In the book — the title of which can be roughly translated as “To a Beautiful, Strong, Growth-driven Nation. My Plan to Strengthen Japan’s Economy” — she will also reportedly call for more robust measures against “serious China risks,” including the theft of Japan’s cutting-edge technology.

But Takaichi’s political reputation as a staunch conservative dates back much further, stemming in no inconsiderable part from her strident opposition to legislation that would allow couples to retain separate surnames after marriage.

That stance has put her at odds with Seiko Noda, another LDP lawmaker and potential candidate to become Japan’s first female prime minister, who supports such legislation.

Spearheaded by Takaichi and others, an LDP group opposed to the legalization of separate surnames for married couples argues that such a move risks undermining Japan’s traditional family system. Rather than aim for full-fledged legal revision, the group instead seeks to prioritize expanding the extent to which women can use their maiden names in society.

A graduate of Kobe University as well as a former U.S. congressional fellow, Takaichi formally made forays into national politics in 1993. Now in her eighth term, she was first tapped to assume a Cabinet portfolio in 2006 under Abe’s short-lived first administration as minister in charge of Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs.

Abe’s subsequent return to power, in December 2012, saw Takaichi again thrust into the spotlight. She was repeatedly appointed to high-profile positions during his tenure, including stints as LDP policy chief and internal affairs and communications minister.

As communications chief, Takaichi stirred controversy when she suggested TV broadcasters could have their license revoked if they air programs the government considers politically biased, a remark widely slammed as tantamount to the repression of free speech.

Recent talk of Takaichi’s potential bid for the LDP presidency has also reignited interest in her somewhat wild past prior to her political debut.

As a heavy metal enthusiast and proclaimed fan of Yoshiki, founder of legendary rock band X Japan, Takaichi had aspired to become a rock musician herself, having played drums as a teenager. In her university days, a pink-haired Takaichi would frequently enjoy motorcycle rides — a hobby she says she had to relinquish several years after her debut as a lawmaker.

“If I get into an accident, I thought I would cause trouble to my constituents, so I’ve been holding back,” she said with a chuckle during a recent TV appearance.

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