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Japan's Return To Nationalism?

The favorite to become Japan's next prime minister headed into Wednesday's vote for the leadership of the ruling party all but guaranteed of victory and the chance to press ahead with his nationalist agenda.

Shinzo Abe holds a commanding lead over two rivals in the vote for president of his Liberal Democratic Party. Clinching the party presidency would give him a lock on the Sept. 26 vote for prime minister in the parliament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the long-ruling Liberal Democrats and their coalition partner.

Abe, 51, would be Japan's youngest postwar prime minister and the first born after World War II.

The son of a foreign minister and grandson of a prime minister, Abe has campaigned on forging a more assertive Japan. He would seek to revise the pacifist constitution to give the military more freedom of action, take a hard line with North Korea and bolster the security alliance with Japan's top ally, the United States.

On Tuesday, Abe hit on his main themes at appearances in Tokyo.

"The time has come to create a country appropriate for the 21st century," he told supporters. "It is important to start building a country with all generations of people working together."

Abe, who joined parliament in 1993 and now serves as chief Cabinet Secretary, comes to the race with the essentials for victory: high support ratings inside and outside the party and the blessing of his mentor, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Because Abe's victory appears certain, his competition has been lackluster. Challengers such as Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso never came close to rivaling Abe in popularity or a vision for Japan's future.

The lack of competition, however, has led to a lack of clarity about Abe's policies.

One looming question for Japan's neighbors is how far Abe will push his vision of a country freed from the restraining legacy of World War II, in which Tokyo's attempt at regional hegemony left Japan and much of Asia in ruins.

Abe, for instance, supports revisionist history textbooks that teach students to take pride in their nation rather than focus on the dark accounts of Japanese atrocities and aggression. He is also a proponent of the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among the country's war dead.

He has compounded this conservative image by questioning whether every prime minister must repeat Japan's standard apology for its wartime actions. When North Korea tested several missiles in July, Abe suggested a look into whether the constitution would allow Japan to conduct a pre-emptive military strike.

It was unclear how that approach would affect Japan's troubled relations with China and South Korea, two victims of Japanese aggression who have refused to meet with Koizumi because of his visits to the Tokyo war shrine.

If he ultimately becomes prime minister, Abe will take the helm of a Japan in transition.

After five years under Koizumi, reforms have made Japan a more competitive market, powering the economy out of a decade-long slowdown but also widening an increasingly troubling gap between rich and poor.

Japan has already started shedding its postwar pacifism. Koizumi pushed for — and won — the power to dispatch the military in unprecedented non-combat roles to help U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite domestic opposition.

But there will be differences as well. Abe is seen as more willing to increase the pressure on North Korea to back down on its nuclear weapons program and resolve the cases of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

His eagerness to reassess Japan's place in the world has support among conservatives in his party.

"I can relate to his stance toward the constitution ... and also the belief that Japan needs to look closely at what kind of country it wants to be," former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said after an Abe rally Tuesday.

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