Courtesy Reuters

How Able Is Abe?

A SOFTER TOUCH FOR JAPAN

When Junichiro Koizumi retired as Japan's prime minister last September, he left big shoes to fill. Although major reforms to Japan's economy had begun years prior to his election in 2001, Koizumi greatly advanced the process -- in part through specific achievements, but more important by catalyzing public demand for change and by giving reform an aura of inevitability. Now Shinzo Abe, his handpicked successor, will have to live up to the expectations Koizumi created.

At first glance, Abe seems a study in contradiction. He is Japan's first prime minister to be born after World War II, yet he draws inspiration from his late grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime leader imprisoned for three years after Japan's surrender. Although Abe is often misperceived as an ultranationalist, he has worked hard since taking office to repair frayed ties with China and South Korea, making concessions that his less nationalist predecessor had refused to make. By confounding expectations, Abe has raised some big questions at home and abroad. First among them: In what ways, exactly, will he act like Koizumi, and how will he be different?

Consider the similarities first. Like Koizumi, Abe reflects and embraces Japan's ongoing metamorphosis. Both men recognize the passing of the old Japan of the 1970s and 1980s, which was characterized by passivity in foreign affairs and a highly regulated corporatist economy that protected inefficient firms and industries. That Japan was a casualty of the bursting of the asset bubble in 1990, the lengthy economic stagnation and banking crisis that ensued, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a more assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Like Koizumi, Abe understands that Japan's increasingly urban and educated population needs and expects ongoing economic reform. When Koizumi repeatedly warned that there could be no growth without structural reform and sought to marginalize recalcitrant factions of his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Abe, in a variety of posts concluding with chief cabinet secretary, stood

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