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The New York Times
Race to Lead Japan May Turn on Asia Ties
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: June 4, 2006
TOKYO, June 3 — With Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set to retire in September, the battle in the governing Liberal Democratic Party over who will succeed him as party leader and prime minister is well under way. So far, the race is turning into a referendum on what to do about Japan's troubled relations with its Asian neighbors, especially China.
Premier Junichiro Koizumi, right, at the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005.
Japan's relations with China and South Korea have chilled, particularly in the last year, because of several disputes over history, territory and Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial where the country's highest-ranking war criminals are enshrined.
Polls here indicate the race is now between politicians with starkly different views: Shinzo Abe, 51, the chief cabinet secretary, who has said that a Japanese prime minister should visit the Yasukuni Shrine and who has become extremely popular by being tough on North Korea and China; and Yasuo Fukuda, 69, a former chief cabinet secretary, who has criticized Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Shinto shrine and talked of rebuilding friendly ties with the rest of East Asia.
Although neither has yet declared his candidacy for the September party election, Mr. Abe leads in the polls. Mr. Fukuda has narrowed the gap significantly in recent weeks, however, buttressed by what experts say is the growing public sentiment that fixing ties with China should be one of the next prime minister's top priorities.
"I think that's a major factor," Takenori Kanzaki, the leader of the New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party's junior coalition partner, said in an interview. "I think that Abe, the chief cabinet secretary, will basically follow the Koizumi line, including foreign policy. By contrast, Fukuda, the former chief cabinet secretary, says clearly that he will revise it. So in that sense, the focus is on Abe versus Fukuda."
Mr. Kanzaki — whose Buddhist-backed party opposes the Yasukuni visits — said they "lie at the root" of Japan's strained ties with China and South Korea.
Mr. Koizumi has said that his annual visits are to mourn for the war dead and to pray for peace. But to Asian nations invaded by imperial Japan, the shrine is a symbol of Japanese militarism; its museum espouses the rightist view that Japan waged war in Asia to liberate it from European domination and was tricked into war by the United States.
The Yasukuni visits have punctuated disagreements over history between Japan and its Asian neighbors. Beijing and Seoul have suspended top-level meetings with Tokyo as a result.
Inside Japan, criticism of the visits has risen along with fears that strained relations with its neighbors will hurt Japan economically, isolate it diplomatically and weaken its alliance with the United States.
The Japan Association of Corporate Executives, a prominent business association, recently released a 13-page statement opposing the Yasukuni visits and calling for the building of a nonreligious war memorial. The group said the visits had damaged relations with China and Japan's national interests, and its chairman said bluntly in a news conference that Mr. Koizumi's successor should refrain from visiting the shrine.
Mr. Koizumi has been one of the Bush administration's staunchest supporters in the war in Iraq, and has strengthened Japan's military ties with the United States. Although hawks in Washington have applauded Mr. Koizumi's tough stance against China, concerns about Japan's worsening ties with China have grown among moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Michael Green, the former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council who is now at Georgetown University, said the Bush administration believes "it would not be helpful for the U.S. to broker a resolution to these sensitive historical issues."
"But there is a growing consensus in Japan that the next prime minister needs to take proactive measures to improve relations with China," Mr. Green said in an interview during a recent visit here. "That would be good. If that doesn't happen by 2008 when the next administration in the U.S. takes over, people may start questioning how much we can rely on Japan."
In speeches and interviews, Mr. Abe has played down the strained ties with China and South Korea. Instead, he has emphasized the importance of strengthening diplomatic ties with Asian countries, like India and Australia, that have "common values" with Japan.
In a recent interview with the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's major economic daily, Mr. Abe said Japan would continue to do business with China, but called China a destabilizing factor in Asia.
"We don't share basic values like freedom and human rights," he said. "If you ask me whether the rule of law is established there, it's not."
By contrast, in a recent speech, Mr. Fukuda said Japan needs to revise its policy toward the rest of Asia. Mentioning the Asia policy that was carried out by his father, Takeo Fukuda, a prime minister in the 1970's, he said that Japan must resume "heart-to-heart" dialogue with its neighbors and ultimately build an East Asian community.
Mr. Fukuda said that Mr. Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni had had no positive effect on Japan.
With the growing criticism against the Yasukuni visits here, Mr. Abe has recently softened his stance. Asked directly whether he would continue the visits as prime minister, he has refused to answer. In the past, he has said that he would want any future prime minister to continue the visits.
In general, Mr. Abe is regarded as ideologically more conservative than Mr. Koizumi. For instance, Mr. Koizumi has stated that he accepts the validity of the postwar Tokyo Trials, which found Japanese guilty of war crimes, including the 14 Class A war criminals enshrined in Yasukuni. In a recent parliamentary debate, Mr. Abe indicated strongly that he did not believe the trials were valid.
Also, in Parliament and in television interviews, asked directly whether Japan had led a war of aggression or liberation in Asia, Mr. Abe has said that he would leave the judgment to future generations or historians.
"On the issue of how to define the last great war, I think it's not the government's job," Mr. Abe said in a parliamentary exchange in February.
Though Mr. Fukuda is thought to have the support of moderates and businesspeople, Mr. Abe is believed to be more popular among the actual voters in the September election: party members.
Hiroshi Imazu, a lawmaker who has yet to decide whom to support, said he endorses Mr. Koizumi's tough stance toward China. The leader of a group of lawmakers that supports visits to Yasukuni, Mr. Imazu said that Japan had become diplomatically isolated.
"But I don't think the fault is Koizumi's, but China and South Korea's attitude," he said.
Mr. Abe is considered by party members and the public to be more of a charismatic, Koizumi-style politician capable of appealing directly to voters and carrying the party to victory in general elections. Perhaps because of his age, Mr. Fukuda is regarded as belonging to an older generation of politicians more comfortable making deals in smoke-filled rooms.
"Abe has made himself clear on various issues to the people, while Fukuda seems like an old-style politician," said Jozo Takeda, a legislator in Hyogo Prefecture.
Mr. Abe is also said to enjoy more support in the regional party branches, where members are concerned less with foreign diplomacy than pocketbook issues, especially the widening inequality gap between urban and rural areas.
"We'll make a decision and vote on this issue," said Fumito Murakami, secretary general of Akita Prefecture's party branch. "We don't care about foreign policy."