Koizumi views spark regional concerns
TOKYO, Japan -- Concerns are emerging that a nationalistic streak in Japan's prime minister-in-waiting, Junichiro Koizumi, may aggravate ties with neighboring countries including China and South Korea.
Early remarks by the man who will be made Japan's prime minister on Thursday have displayed a willingness to focus on the controversial issues of national security and Japan's war history.
Koizumi told a packed press conference upon winning the leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party that the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan's Constitution "should be revised in the future."
The Constitution's Article 9 -- a legacy of Japan's aggression in World War Two -- renounces war and promises that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."
Nevertheless, Japan has one of the largest military forces in Asia, amounting to 150,000 troops, and spends about 4.9 trillion yen ($US45 billion) annually on defense.
"An article whereby the existence of the nation's Self-Defense Forces can be interpreted as running counter to the Constitution is absurd," Koizumi said.
In a move that is expected to rile neighboring South Korea and China, Koizumi also stated that he plans to pay a visit a memorial to Japan's militaristic past in Tokyo.
The Shinto shrine was established in 1869 for people to worship "the divine spirits of those who sacrificed themselves for their country". The shrine pays respects to some 2.5 million Japanese soldiers -- including those convicted for war crimes.
While Koizumi is yet to name a cabinet -- that is due to happen after he is sworn in as prime minister -- the comments are being read as an indication of a more nationalist fervor in Japanese politics.
China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue has urged Koizumi not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. "It is China's persistent stance to oppose visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese political figures," Zhang said.
"A responsible statesman should take concrete actions to show his sincerity and attitude toward Japan's history of aggression against some Asian countries, including China."
Despite serving more than two decades in Japanese politics, and having a major U.S. naval base in his electorate, diplomatic sources told CNN that Koizumi has not yet shown much interest in international affairs.
"He's a very peculiar character, and he's had a very unusual rise to power," said one observer. "In the past, prime ministers have either been the heads of major factions, or the puppets of heads of major factions. Koizumi is neither of those."
"His views on international affairs are, to say the least, uninformed.
"In reviewing what he has said publicly in speeches over the past 15 years, international affairs have almost never come up. It seems to be something he has simply shown no interest in," said the source.
"Of his views on national security or foreign policy, well, we don't think he has any well thought-out policy prescriptions."
Korean media reported quoted unidentified government officials as saying there is a good chance of Korea-Japan relations becoming more difficult under Koizumi's leadership.
"Will there be dark clouds ahead for Korea-Japan relations?" says the headline of an article in Joongang Ilbo, South Korea's largest daily newspaper.
The media point out that the new prime minister has never visited Korea, suggesting the attitude of the new Japanese leader is that he doesn't know about South Korea, has never shown interest in getting to know it, and few Korean parliamentarians know him.
The influential and conservative Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper also said another reason for worry about the new prime minister is that he is a typical domestic politician who does not show much interest in international affairs.
And therefore, in dealing with external issues like trade problems, "he is more likely to be influenced by domestic public opinion rather than international balance."
Another influential daily, Dong-A Ilbo says the new prime minister will also be "preoccupied by domestic problems."
But one political analyst inside Tokyo's diplomatic circles said there was every reason to believe Koizumi's foreign policy views "are squarely within the LDP mainstream".
"You can imagine how the Article 9 comment is being read in Beijing and Seoul, but in the Japanese context it's not that radical. It's well within the direction the country has been moving in for some time," said the source.
"There is no debate about whether or not to change article 9, it's about when and how. Most people in Japan believe it should be able to participate in United Nations peacekeeping, and that's what he's talking about."
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