Japan elects its youngest postwar prime minister
Nationalist Shinzo Abe, a proponent of a robust alliance with the United States and a more assertive military, easily won election in parliament Tuesday as Japan's youngest postwar prime minister.
Abe got 339 votes out of 475 counted in the powerful lower house, and 136 ballots out of 240 in the upper house, handily defeating Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.
Abe, at 52 Japan's first prime minister born after the Second World War, stocked his new government with conservatives such as Taro Aso, who will keep his post as foreign minister, and veteran Fumio Kyuma, appointed to a second stint as defence chief.
"It's the beginning of the new era under Abe," ruling party secretary-general Hidenao Nakagawa told national broadcaster NHK.
"I hope those who voted for Abe will join hands to achieve our political goals."
The heir apparent to outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for about a year, Abe came to office as a champion of the security pact with top ally the United States, revision of the pacifist constitution, a more outspoken foreign policy, and more patriotic education.
His top challenges will be repairing Japan's deteriorating ties with China and South Korea, maintaining the economy's recovery from a decade-long slowdown, and grappling with troubles related to the rapidly aging population.
His government immediately declared that the prime minister — not the powerful bureaucracy — would direct policy.
"The Prime Minister's Office should be strengthened as the control centre for the whole state," said incoming Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "The office will put forward policies based on strategic thinking."
The new prime minister has some big shoes to fill. Koizumi pushed through major economic reforms, backed a groundbreaking dispatch of soldiers to Iraq, and brought Japanese politics into the modern media age in five years at the helm.
His supporters cheered as he left the Prime Minister's Office with a bouquet of flowers in his hands Tuesday morning.
"There is no end to reform," Koizumi said in a parting statement. "I hope that the public will work with the new prime minister to believe in Japan's future and continue the reform with courage and hope."
Abe has indicated he would push ahead with those reforms. To that end, he named economist Hiroko Ota as economy minister, and former economic planning chief Koji Omi as finance minister.
The new government will also have several new cabinet portfolios: solving North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, retraining laid-off workers and others, technological innovation, and regional economic revitalization.
Abe signalled the primary directions of his government on Monday by choosing pro-growth fiscal conservative Hidenao Nakagawa and fellow nationalist Shoichi Nakagawa to two top posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Aso, returning for a second stint as foreign minister, set a summit with China at the top of his agenda.
"Now that we have new prime minister Abe, we will make efforts to achieve summit talks between the new prime minister and Chinese President Hu Jintao," Aso said.
Momentum has been building for such a meeting. Japan and China held vice-ministerial talks this week, and Aso met on Monday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Tokyo. The two agreed that relations between Japan and China are "at an important period," the Foreign Ministry said.
Japan and China are at odds over interpretations of wartime history, exploitation of maritime resources, and island territories.
Hu has refused to meet with Koizumi since last year over his visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honours war criminals among Japan's war dead and is considered by critics to be a glorification of Tokyo's past militarism.
Abe has relatively little experience in government. He worked as an aide to his politician father Shintaro Abe, and then was elected to parliament in 1993. He was little known until 2002, when he took the lead in negotiating the release of Japanese abducted by North Korea.
Koizumi gave Abe his first cabinet posting just last year, naming him to the high-profile position of chief cabinet secretary. The job gave Abe — Koizumi's first choice to succeed him — daily exposure to the public.