Accessibility links

Breaking News

A Look at Japan's New Prime Minister

Japan has a new Prime Minister, 52-year-old Shinzo Abe, who also heads the East Asian nation's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Mr. Abe is a conservative whose nationalism and support for the military could unsettle Japan's neighbors.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has been a different country than the one that conquered the rest of East Asia. The nation replaced militaristic imperialism with capitalism and became the world's second-strongest economy.

First Post-War Generation Leader

But some Japanese remain proud of their country's history. While such opinions were largely kept quiet for years after the 1945 surrender, they are far more out in the open today. And there are political figures in Japan who do not discourage such thinking.

One of them, say analysts, is the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who also leads Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He replaces Junichiro Koizumi, who held the post since 2001.

Mark Fitzpatrick is with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He says Mr. Abe represents the transition Japan has undergone in recent years. "He is Japan's first post-war generation leader. He is described as a nationalist. He wants to continue the process of making Japan a normal country, to put World War II behind. It has been over 60 years now."

Fitzpatrick and other analysts say that Japanese born after the war do not view their country's past in the same way as their elders. They say Shinzo Abe reflects and taps into these attitudes with his nationalistic rhetoric and announced plans for assertive foreign policies.

Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York says that to a growing number of Japanese, it is time to stop apologizing for what happened more than a half-century ago.

"There is a sentiment that is now trying to affect the history books and museums and other displays of history to promote an interpretation of World War II as an anti-colonial war. And [that] Japan was trying to free the rest of Asia from Western domination. Or [it was] a normal pursuit of resources [such as oil] that any country would have to engage in," says Segal.

But this revisionist perspective in Japan is unsettling to people in other East Asian nations that were once subjugated by Tokyo. Japan's former Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, prompted outcries from China and South Korea by making visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which to many people in East Asia symbolizes Japan's past colonialism and aggression.

Jamie Metzl, Vice President of Asia Society in New York, says Mr. Abe has to carefully weigh the impact of being seen at Yasukuni and other displays of Japanese nationalism.

"It's a cost-benefit analysis that he is going to have to make," says Metzl. "Will he gain more by the domestic support from the right that he will get from making these visits than he will from those who believe that Japan needs better relationships with [South] Korea and, more importantly, China to make its economy grow?"

Relations With Neighboring Countries

Some analysts, including Don Oberdorfer at The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, express confidence that the new prime minister will be constructive in how he engages Japan's neighbors.

"[Mr.] Abe is smart enough to try to operate in a way that does not disadvantage Japan. The odds are that he will be more maneuverable [than his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi]. It's not in their [i.e., Japan's] interest to have others in Northeastern Asia fearful of a Japan that they think has gone off the deep end as a nationalistic country," says Oberdorfer.

Prime Minister Abe has caught the attention of Japan's neighbors with his support for changing his country's constitution to allow the military to move beyond its post-war "self-defense only" restrictions. That transition started under former Prime Minister Koizumi, who sent Japanese troops to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition there.

The new prime minister has also attracted attention with his hard-line stance toward North Korea's quest for missiles and nuclear weapons. Many analysts say the recent test of a North Korean missile heightened Japanese concerns about Pyongyang's ambitions and, as a result, bolstered arguments for a stronger military.

But Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says that while Mr. Abe's stance may appeal to the West, it also creates problems for other East Asian nations hoping to curb Pyongyang.

"There is concern that the divergence among the six-party talks partners is going to widen with Mr. Abe. That is to say, the United States and Japan will be increasingly hard-nosed about North Korea, [and] will be applying sanctions. And [this] will make it harder for South Korea and China, who want to engage and reform North Korea through trade and investment," says Fitzpatrick.

Along with expanding the role of Japan's military, Jamie Metzl at Asia House says Pyongyang's desire for nuclear weapons may cause Tokyo to re-examine one of its strongest post-war taboos.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure on [Mr.] Abe to consider, at some point, developing a nuclear capability for 'balance of power' issues. Certainly, it's [North Korea's ambitions] pushing Japan to the right. And [Mr.] Abe is going to have to be very thoughtful and strategic in responding to it," says Metzl.

While Shinzo Abe has a number of defense issues to address, many analysts say his most important task is stimulating Japan's economy, which fell into a deep slump during the 1990s. The task is more difficult because Japan now has competition for oil and other resources from China. And labor costs in South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia are lower than in Japan, enabling those countries to be more competitive. But most analysts expect Shinzo Abe to push for economic reforms and take other steps to help Japan thrive in a tough trade environment.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.