The Sept. 20 Liberal Democratic Party presidential campaign heated up Thursday when Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki became the first LDP lawmaker to officially declare his candidacy. Mr. Tanigaki’s entry promises to deepen discussion of tax and other policy issues following former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda’s early withdrawal from the race. Mr. Tanigaki is considered likely to put forth proposals that clearly differ from those of the party’s front-runner in opinion polls, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe. A third possibility, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, is poised to take part in the race.

Despite the popular support for Mr. Abe, Mr. Fukuda at one point was rated as the most hoped-for candidate — a sign that more than a few people are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s reform politics. Mr. Fukuda embodied the wishes of those seeking a counter to Mr. Abe, who is expected to hew to Mr. Koizumi’s policy line.

The perception exists that Mr. Koizumi’s policy has widened the gap between haves and have-nots. There is also concern about the deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea as a result of Mr. Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors 14 Class-A war criminals as well as Japan’s 2.46 million war dead.

Mr. Fukuda was critical of Mr. Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits and advocated building friendly relationships with other Asian nations. Mr. Abe supports Mr. Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, although he has not made clear whether he will visit Yasukuni if he is elected prime minister. Another factor favoring Mr. Fukuda was worry about Mr. Abe’s ostensibly hawkish posture.

As for the Yasukuni issue, Mr. Fukuda supported the idea of the government constructing a nonreligious national monument for mourning the war dead and praying for peace. This idea was originally proposed in 2002 by a panel under Mr. Fukuda while he was chief Cabinet secretary. Mr. Aso proposes turning Yasukuni into a nonreligious entity, but has not yet made clear whether he will visit the shrine if he becomes prime minister. Mr. Tanigaki supports the idea of enshrining the Class-A war criminals at a separate facility. He has declared that he will not visit Yasukuni if he becomes prime minister.

Mr. Abe’s hawkishness and carelessness as a politician came to the fore in his reaction to the July 5 test-firing of missiles by North Korea. He favored starting a discussion on whether Japan should have preemptive capability to hit an enemy’s missile base when there is no other way to prevent the missile attack by the enemy. Mr. Aso took a similar position.

Even before Mr. Fukuda announced his decision not to run in the LDP race, Mr. Abe had boosted his popularity through media exposure. Mr. Abe took a main role in handling the situation following North Korea’s missile tests while Mr. Koizumi was on a trip to the Middle East, and to St. Petersburg to attend the Group of Eight summit. Mr. Abe’s push for a tough United Nations Security Council resolution against North Korea helped boost his popularity.

Mr. Fukuda’s withdrawal announcement had been preceded by the cancellation of events at which he was due to express his political stance as a possible LDP presidential race candidate. The cancellation of a June 20 meeting with politicians, a June 26 meeting with political commentators and a July 28 meeting organized by the LDP’s Tokyo chapter strengthened speculation that he would not run in the LDP race. His announcement confirming that came shortly after a memorandum written and left by a former Imperial Household Agency grand steward surfaced. The memorandum quoted the late Emperor Showa as saying in effect that he had stopped visiting Yasukuni because of its decision in 1978 to enshrine the Class-A war criminals.

One reason cited by Mr. Fukuda for dropping out was age. He said he felt that 70 was too old for him to execute the responsibilities of the prime minister. He also said he feared his candidacy would lead to a dichotomy of popular opinion over the Yasukuni issue and over foreign policy toward other Asian countries. But these are the very issues that candidates must discuss openly before the public. Other LDP politicians may join the race. None should shy away from speaking out about these and other important issues, including the nation’s financial reconstruction and a possible rise in the consumption tax.

Because the LDP has an absolute majority in the Lower House, whoever becomes LDP president will go on to head the next government as prime minister. As many aspiring party leaders as possible should enter the race, debating both domestic and diplomatic problems in depth. By doing so, they will not only improve their grasp of those issues but also help the public acquire a clearer vision of Japan’s future.

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