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Abe edging back into fight

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be trying to move back into the political limelight, even though his close associates think it’s too early.

As deputy chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe gained fame as a leader of the campaign to resolve the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and ’80s, and have any survivors returned.

Abe’s closest political ally is Taro Aso, former foreign minister who was named all-powerful secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in a major reshuffle of the Cabinet and party leadership posts in August. The alliance between Abe and Aso amounts to nothing more or less than an opposition force to incumbent Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

Abe succeeded Koizumi as prime minister in September 2006. Two weeks short of a year in office, however, he announced his intention to resign for health reasons. After a brief hospitalization, he renewed his political activities before the end of 2007. In an article contributed to the February 2008 issue of the magazine Bungei Shunju, he declared that he would do everything in his power to ensure that true conservative politics took root in Japan.

On March 5, he became the head of an intra-LDP study group on environmental issues, initiated by former Environment Minister Shunichi Suzuki, Aso’s brother-in-law. On the same day, he appeared before a meeting of an LDP faction headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and announced that he was resuming political activities. Though Abe originally belonged to the Machimura faction, he refrained from attending factional meetings after becoming prime minister. His mentor, former Prime Minister Yoshio Mori, is said to have encouraged Abe to return to the faction.

Another thing worth remembering is Abe’s relations with what is known as the “Policy Study Group on True Conservatism,” created last December by some 80 LDP lawmakers under the leadership of former Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Shoichi Nakagawa. Its members include big names like former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, former Public Safety Commission Chairman Shinya Izumi, and former Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma, who left the LDP after a feud with Koizumi over postal service privatization.

This policy study group, a successor to an organization viewed as a de facto “Abe faction,” calls for Japan to promote stronger ties with the likes of the United States, Britain, South Korea, Australia and India, which it says are champions of freedom, human rights and democracy. The group draws a line between Japan and dictatorial nations such as North Korea, China, Iran and Myanmar.

This is precisely what Abe and Aso have preached with regard to “value-oriented Japanese diplomacy.” Strangely enough, though, neither man belongs to this policy study group. The group has held seminars featuring prominent scholars and activists, becoming the stronghold of conservative LDP members.

The same group has turned into Aso’s strongest supporter. Aso is regarded as the leading candidate to succeed Prime Minister Fukuda. Although Abe does not play a central role in the group, he spares no effort to support Aso — so much so that one of Aso’s supporters confided: “We must thank Abe for enabling Aso to have connections with the Machimura faction, without which Aso could not hope to take the reins of government.”

On April 10, Abe sent his wife Akie to Narita airport to pay a courtesy call on the Dalai Lama, who was on his way to the U.S. It was a tactful move on Abe’s part, coming after Chinese forces had suppressed riots in Tibet. Abe wanted to see the Tibetan spiritual leader for himself, but refrained from doing so because Prime Minister Fukuda was about to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Tokyo.

Fukuda and Abe hail from the same political faction within the LDP, but they are separated by age: Fukuda is 72 and Abe is 53. Fukuda has been elected to the Diet six times; Abe, five times. In the early days of the Koizumi administration, Fukuda was chief Cabinet secretary and Abe was his deputy.

Up to that point, the seniority order between them was clear, but they clashed with each other on how to deal with the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens. Abe gained the upper hand after his tough approach toward Pyongyang proved popular.

Succeeding Koizumi, Abe in turn handed the premiership to Fukuda after falling ill. Fukuda bitterly criticized the way Abe resigned, which helped strengthen the ties between Abe and Aso.

In areas related to diplomacy and security, Fukuda is a liberal and Aso a traditional conservative. Yet, neither is capable of leading an ideology-driven group or is reputed to have shrewd political insight or energetic leadership.

LDP history has been marked by a struggle and balance between conservative and liberal forces. Fukuda and Abe symbolize this rivalry. But, surprisingly, neither Fukuda nor Abe seem capable of conveying messages that capture the hearts of politicians. The same applies to leading aspirants to the premiership — Aso, Shoichi Nakagawa and Hidenao Nakagawa.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.