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Who is Shinzo Abe?

Updated On: Sep 22, 2006

Some say he is too young. Others say he is a dangerous hawk. Yet others say he is a strategic pragmatist. Who is Shinzo Abe?

Shinzo Abe is Koizumi’s heir apparent and has just been elected with a big majority to the LDP party leadership.  As leader of LDP, he would probably also take the Prime Minister seat of Japan.   He has been very much in the news since he declared his candidacy.  Yet, despite the wide media attention paid to this successor, very little is actually known of his policy intentions. Let’s discuss what we know first.

We know that Abe is a hawk who expressed his right-leaning views through his political manifesto, Utsukushi kuni e (Towards a Beautiful Country). We also know that he has political pedigree – his uncle and grandfather are Prime Ministers, his father a foreign minister and he has enjoyed the patronage of the Fukuda, Koizumi and Mori factions in Japanese politics. We also know that the core of his popularity lies in being very tough to North Korea, some say maybe even Chinatoo. Abe is the main pusher for Japanese economic sanctions on North Koreaand has supported Australia’s motion in the UN on this issue. He intends to use at least five years in power to revamp Japan’s postwar peace constitution.

What are we unclear about are these. Abe is an enigma because he is not from an elite university as most powerful Japanese politicians are. He is said to have been reserved a seat in a middle-ranking university but little else is known of his educational background. Abe is said to favour the US-Japan alliance but is determined to revise the peace constitution imposed by the Americans after the war. What we do know also is that Abe has publicly professed his doubts about negative views ofJapan’s intentions to occupy other countries during WWII and especially the validity of war crimes trials after that.

Here is what we know nothing about. Abe has said very very little about economic reforms, which was the platform of the Koizumi revolution. What is he going to do with the government debt; is he concerned about the slowing economic growth; how is he going to continue Japan’s economic reforms? Nobody knows. What we do know is that Heizo Takenaka, Koizumi’s brilliant reformist brains behind Japan’s economic recovery, has been pushed to resign after Abe refuses to accept his economic advice. From this, we do not know how open Abe is to criticisms. Former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka criticized Abe publicly and opined that he would be a short-term Prime Minister given his shortcomings. She was threatened on the phone by rightwingers, whether connected to her remarks about Abe, we don’t know. Nevertheless, his supporters say he is more like President Bush, willing to delegate power and someone who relies on advice of his close aides.  

Finally, here’s what we do not know and perhaps are the most pressing issues for Japan’s immediate neighbours and perhaps the international community. First, Yasukuni. We also do not know how close he is with the rightwing. We know that his grandfather was a suspected Class A war criminal and another of his uncle enshrined in Yasukuni was a main motivator of Japan’s prewar links with Nazi Germany. But will he visit the shrine after becoming Prime Minister? If so, will he visit in secrecy or with full publicity in his official capacity? Nobody knows. When heavyweight LDP power broker and Yasukuni critic Kato Koichi criticized Koizumi’s visit to the war shrine, his house was burnt down to the ground.  Will the rightwing form an unofficial umbrella of protection around Abe’s reforms, we don’t know.

The second most highly-watched event will be Japan’s rapprochement with China. Abe is known to be covertly tough on China but wants better ties with China, continue the Sino-Japanese trade boom and hopes to encourage more Chinese students to study in Japan. Abe seems to want to placate Japan’s powerful business lobby, attentively meeting them upon their return from recent trips to Beijing and has also held secretive closed door meetings with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) heavyweights, keeping buoyant hopes about Sino-Japanese rapprochement as the two East Asian giants jostle for power.

So what kind of policies will he finally pursued as the new Prime Minister, and what priorities will occupy his initial years in office is still unclear.  Neighbouring countries will adopt a wait and see attitude before rushing to embrace this new leader of Japan. 

Sources:

China criticises Japanese leader's shrine visit, no verification on Abe's visit to China (People’s Daily, 16 September 2006)

Will Abe let the right wing hold sway? (Straits Times, 19 September 2006)

Pyongyang urges next prime minister to work toward normalizing relations (Japan Times, 18 September 2006)