Chief Cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe is now formally in the race to become Japan's next head of government. He is expected to win the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which would virtually assure his becoming prime minister.
Shinzo Abe declared his candidacy Friday to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
For weeks, the country's chief Cabinet secretary has been considered the front-runner in the election for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party. Political commentators say the other candidates do not stand a chance, given the overwhelming number of party lawmakers supporting Abe.
Because the Liberal Democratic Party controls both houses of Parliament, the party president becomes the prime minister.
Abe made his announcement at a news conference in Hiroshima following a local party convention, where he pledged to revise Japan's pacifist constitution and improve relations with Asian neighbors.
Abe says he has decided to enter the September 20 contest for the party presidency.
He also pledged to strengthen the military alliance with the United States and drastically overhaul Japan's education system.
Mr. Koizumi, after five years in office, is stepping down this month.
Two other members of Mr. Koizumi's Cabinet are among those challenging Abe, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso.
Political analysts say the 51-year-old Abe, who would be the youngest Japanese prime minister since World War II, would likely continue to govern much along the lines of the Koizumi administration.
Like Koizumi, Abe is considered a defense hawk. Despite his pledge Friday to improve regional relations, he is not viewed as someone likely to significantly improve ties with Japan's neighbors, especially China and South Korea.
Abe has supported Mr. Koizumi's controversial visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which have angered Beijing and Seoul. But Abe has not said whether he will visit the shrine, where those convicted of 20th Century war crimes are among those honored.
On Friday, Abe told the Tokyo Broadcasting System, visits to Yasukuni are important to honor those who sacrificed their lives for their country.
Abe says he should cherish that feeling when he becomes party president and prime minister.
In a country where many families produce several generations of politicians, Abe is considered a political thoroughbred. His grandfather was a prime minister and his father was a foreign minister.