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Saturday, Sep. 22, 2012

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Left to right: Liberal Democratic Party presidential candidates Nobuteru Ishihara, Shigeru Ishiba and Shinzo Abe speak at a news conference in Tokyo on Sept. 14 during campaigning for the leadership race. BLOOMBERG

Fears mount over LDP's nationalistic turn

Saber-rattling over island disputes likely to grow louder


One is a former prime minister known for his nationalistic views. A second is a hawkish former defense chief. And a third is the son of Tokyo's outspoken governor, whose proposal to buy and develop the Senkaku Islands set off a territorial furor in China.

A look at the top candidates to lead the Liberal Democrat Party, the main opposition group, and potentially become the next prime minister suggests a more nationalist government may soon be ruling Japan.

That could ratchet up already tense relations with China and South Korea over sovereignty disputes in the waters around Japan that have flared in recent weeks and brought anti-Japanese demonstrations to dozens of Chinese cities.

There is little sign that the public has grown more nationalistic, but the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is expected to get clobbered in elections that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he will call "soon." Voters are angry over Noda's push to double the consumption tax and his party's failure to bring promised change to the stodgy political scene.

That leaves the conservative LDP poised to regain the power it lost three years ago after decades of being Japan's dominant political force. Polls suggest the party would win the most seats in the powerful Lower House, although probably not an outright majority, so it would need to forge a governing coalition to rule.

If the LDP regains power, the leader it will choose in a party vote next Wednesday would almost certainly become the next prime minister.

The party is conservative and pro-U.S., with a traditional suspicion of China. The five candidates running for president, a position occupied by Sadakazu Tanigaki, include former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who have been taking turns calling on Japan to get tough with Beijing in the escalating dispute over the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu as they are called by the Chinese.

The barren outcroppings, near key shipping lanes and surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources, are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

"Losing a piece of our territory eventually means losing the whole country," Ishiba, an expert on security and defense issues who is considered a hawk, declared at a news conference Wednesday. Ishiba has said he would favor developing the Senkakus — a move that would surely enrage Beijing.

"Our beautiful countryside and ocean are under threat," Abe, perhaps the most rightwing of the five presidential candidates, has said on the campaign trail.

Abe riled neighboring countries during his 2006-2007 tenure as prime minister by denying there is any proof that the Imperial Japanese Army coerced Chinese, Korean and other women into prostitution in military brothels during the war. He later apologized for the remarks, but lately he has been suggesting that a landmark 1993 acknowledgement that the military recruited women as sex slaves may need to be revised.

Abe also has recently said he regrets not visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals, during his time as prime minister. The issue is an extremely sensitive one for Japan's neighbors and war victims: Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the shrine from 2000 to 2006 put relations with China into a deep freeze.

Another front-runner in the LDP race is Nobuteru Ishihara, son of Tokyo's stridently nationalistic governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

The governor set off the East China Sea flare-up by announcing in April that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government planned to purchase three of the Senkaku islets from a private Japanese owner and to build fishing facilities on them. That compelled the central government to buy the isles itself to prevent efforts to build on them that would have escalated the dispute.

China still responded angrily, sending surveillance ships into waters near the islands and allowing nationwide protests that have raged for days. Japan has been alarmed by footage of Chinese rioters attacking Japanese-owned companies.

While the younger Ishihara is less outspoken than his father, his blood ties would be a major obstacle to easing tensions, in particular for Beijing.

"It's going to be very difficult for him to disassociate himself from his father," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "If you do have a nationalist in charge in Japan, they could make things worse. They certainly could throw oil on the fire."

China is not the only country clashing with Japan over land. Tensions with South Korea also spiked after President Lee Myung Bak visited the island cluster referred to as Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan. The isles are claimed by both countries but controlled by South Korea.

Japanese voters, however, may not share the aggressive stance of nationalist politicians. The general population appears more deeply concerned about the stagnant economy, social security and overhauling the nation's energy policy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Aside from the usual token protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo by far rightwing demonstrators in black trucks blaring martial music, there have been virtually no public demonstrations over the Senkakus, though thousands regularly gather outside the prime minister's office to demand an end to nuclear power.

While some Japanese want a tough leader who can stand up to Beijing, others are worried that if Abe, Ishiba or Ishihara become prime minister, ties with China and other neighboring countries will worsen.

"I'm worried this dispute could lead to war if any of these men become our leader," said Kaoru Hara, a 22-year-old ad agency employee. "We need someone who can express Japan's position but also can listen to China's side."

Still, China's rise and North Korea's latest attempt to fire a rocket earlier this year have created an opportunity for some politicians to exploit."I don't think the country is moving to the right, but I think there's more room today to whip up more nationalist fervor because people are feeling a bit more vulnerable," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Ishiba, who also served as chief of the former Defense Agency, is the most popular choice among LDP supporters, according to a Kyodo News poll. He has a reputation for being sharp and a bit of a military policy wonk. He has also suggested that one reason the country should maintain its atomic energy program is to keep open the option of developing nuclear warheads — although Japan officially has no such plans.

Ishihara has stressed the importance of encouraging dialogue with Beijing. But last week, he said he believed it was important that Emperor Akihito be able to visit and pray at Yasukuni Shrine, which would surely upset China.

Two other candidates for the LDP's presidency, former economic and fiscal policy minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, are both less nationalistic but seen as having little chance of winning.

Abe's track record as prime minister was that of a nationalist ideologue: He urged a revision of the pacifist Constitution, pressed for patriotic and revisionist education, upgraded the Defense Agency to ministry status and pushed for Japan to have a greater role in international peacekeeping.

He has also reached out to the brash, young mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, a rising star who has espoused nationalistic views. Hashimoto recently formed his own national political party and analysts predict it could win a chunk of seats in the next election, meaning it would likely be invited to join an LDP-led coalition.

Abe blasted China over the anti-Japanese protests Wednesday, saying that if Beijing can't protect Japanese living in China, it "should not enjoy membership in the international community."

"In Japan," he said, "there is no flag-burning, there is no harm to Chinese nationals in this country, and we should be proud of that."

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