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Japan's Hawkish Abe Popular But Unproven


Shinzo Abe, a political blueblood, is expected to become prime minister of Japan this month - replacing Junichiro Koizumi, who will retire after five years in office. Abe, currently the chief cabinet secretary, comes from a long line of top Japanese politicians.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, at 51, has risen rapidly through Japan's political ranks. In a country where elected positions are inherited as much as contested, the Abe family has stellar political DNA (genes)

Abe does not hesitate to invoke the name of his father, Shintaro Abe, a former foreign minister once known as "the prince" of Japanese politics.

Abe, shortly after announcing his candidacy, tells a group of his Liberal Democratic Party supporters that his father ran for the same post he is now pursuing but never made it.

It was Shintaro Abe's death from liver cancer in 1991 - as he was poised to become prime minister - that propelled his son into politics. Shinzo Abe, born in the small city of Nagato on the Sea of Japan coast, won his first election for a seat in Parliament by a landslide in his father's district in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

It was a position he had been groomed for. Following a stint at one of Japan's biggest steel companies, Abe became an aide to his father when he was foreign minister in the early 1980s.

Abe's political roots go back another generation. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served as prime minister in the late 1950s. A great-uncle - Eisaku Sato - also led Japan for eight years.

With that ancestry, it was not difficult for the young politician to make valuable contacts and garner allies in a political world where relationships can be more important than policies.

Senior vice justice minister, Taro Kono, says the overwhelming support for Abe in the L.D.P. has little to do with shared philosophies.

"It's because of human bonding. It's who they hang out with. Some people prefer friendship over policy," he said. "Let's talk about policy and let's decide who should lead the country, who should lead the party, based on the policy."

While Mr. Koizumi is known for his ease in dealing with foreigners and fondness for American pop culture, Abe's English skills are arguably more polished - partly as a result of time spent in 1978 at the University of Southern California.

While Junichiro Koizumi was favorably compared with Bill Clinton - an outsider coming into power - Shinzo Abe is seen as resembling George W. Bush - another multi-generation politician.

Abe, who has a reputation for mild manners, is known for a playful side. He reportedly enjoys video games and comic books. Archery is said to be one of his hobbies. Abe is married but has no children.

Some in his own party worry he has risen too far, too fast - meaning he is still a political lightweight. Media profiles here regard the hawkish politician as short-tempered and prone to provocative gaffes in unguarded moments - such as advocating nuclear weapons for Japan or attacking North Korea.