Japan's Shinzo Abe: comeback kid with conservative agenda

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s Shinzo Abe may be thoroughly modern when it comes to pitching his policies on a widely followed Facebook page, but his conservative agenda for shedding the shackles of post-war pacifism is one that he learned at his grandfather’s knee.

The dapper, soft-spoken Abe first took office in 2006 as Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War Two. But he quit suddenly after a year plagued by scandals in his cabinet, public outrage at lost pension records and his Liberal Democratic Party’s big defeat in an election for parliament’s upper house.

Now with a hawkish Abe again at the helm, the LDP -- ignominiously ousted in 2009 -- is expected to make a comeback in Sunday’s poll for parliament’s powerful lower chamber.

Surveys published on Friday showed the LDP was on track for a hefty majority and, with a smaller ally, could even take two-thirds of the seats in the 480-member chamber.

“I have experienced failure as a politician and for that very reason, I am ready to give everything for Japan,” Abe wrote in a recent magazine article, referring to his September 2007 resignation, which he blamed on a chronic intestinal ailment.

Abe, 58, hails from a wealthy political family that included a foreign minister father and a great-uncle who served as premier. But when it comes to policies, his grandfather, the late prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, seems to have mattered most.

“If one lists the many problems Japan faces ... they all stem from one root cause,” Abe wrote.

“Haven’t we put off problems without clarifying Japan’s will to protect the lives and assets of its people and territory with its own hands, and merely accepted the benefits of economic prosperity?” added Abe, who wants to loosen the limits of Japan’s post-World War Two pacifist constitution.

Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who was imprisoned but never tried as a war criminal after World War Two, served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, when he had to resign due to a public furor over a renegotiated U.S.-Japan security pact.

Five years old at the time, Abe famously heard the sound of violent clashes between police and leftist crowds protesting against the pact outside parliament as he played on his grandfather’s lap.

Kishi tried without success to revise Japan’s U.S.-drafted 1947 constitution, become an equal partner with the United States and adopt a more assertive diplomacy -- all central to Abe’s agenda both in 2006 and today.


Abe often speaks of “escaping the post-war regime”, a legacy of the U.S. Occupation that conservatives argue deprived Japan of national pride and weakened traditional mores.

“I have not changed my view from five years ago when I was prime minister that the biggest issue for Japan is truly ‘escaping the post-war regime’,” Abe wrote.

First elected to parliament in 1993 after his father’s death, Abe rose to national fame by adopting a tough stance toward Japan’s unpredictable neighbor North Korea in a feud over Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago.

More recently, he has promised not to yield in a territorial row with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea and boost defense spending to counter Beijing’s growing clout.

He also wants to recast Japan’s wartime history in less apologetic tones, and in April visited the Yasukuni Shrine, seen in much of Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Whether Abe, who is also prescribing radical monetary policy steps to beat deflation, will stick faithfully to his ultra-conservative agenda once in office is a matter for debate.

“He can say whatever he wants during the campaign that will win him votes but when he becomes prime minister again, he ... will quickly shift to governing mode. That means he will be, and should be, more realistic,” said Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.

“He is one of the most realistic and pragmatic politicians of my generation,” said Miyake, a former diplomat.

Abe surprised many in his first term by moving quickly to mend ties with China, chilled by his predecessor’s visits to Yasukuni. He went to China on his first overseas trip and stayed away from the shrine -- a decision he has since said he regrets.

Skeptics question whether pragmatism will trump ideology this time. “He’s been two Abes -- pragmatic and ideological,” said Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

“It’s going to be much harder for him to be pragmatic than before. The general public is in a less conciliatory mood than in 2006. Positions have hardened.”

Whether Abe has matured enough to become a more competent leader also remains to be seen. Critics charged his first term was characterized by a cabinet filled with close friends and worry he may fall into the same trap this time, too.

“The return of the cabinet of chums!” blared one tabloid magazine ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Editing by Paul Tait