Nationalist Shinzo Abe, a proponent of a robust alliance with the United States and a more assertive military, easily won election in parliament to become Japan's youngest postwar prime minister Tuesday.
Abe garnered 339 votes out of 475 counted in the powerful lower house, and 136 ballots out of 240 in the upper house. He later appeared before Emperor Akihito in a brief ceremony at the Imperial Palace.
Abe, at 52 Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, stocked his new government with a wide range of Cabinet picks, including Taro Aso, who will keep his post as foreign minister, and veteran Fumio Kyuma, appointed to a second stint as defense chief.
"It's the beginning of the new era under Abe," ruling party secretary-general Hidenao Nakagawa told national broadcaster NHK. "I hope those who voted for Abe will join hands to achieve our political goals."
The heir apparent to outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for about a year, Abe came to office as a champion of the security pact with top ally the United States, revision of the pacifist constitution, a more outspoken foreign policy, and more patriotic education.
"His views on beefing up Japan's military will likely find a lot of sympathy in Washington, because it will Japan a stronger military ally and a buffer against China's growing military and China's growing influence," says . "I think that's part of what Japan's new prime minister wants to be: Not just another buffer, but another stand-alone country that can stand up to China."
Other challenges will include maintaining the economy's recovery from a decade-long slowdown, and grappling with troubles related to the rapidly aging population.
His government immediately declared that the prime minister — not the powerful bureaucracy — would direct policy.
"The Prime Minister's Office should be strengthened as the control center for the whole state," said incoming Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "The office will put forward policies based on strategic thinking."
"Clearly, he sees himself as a much stronger figure and the focus really is on the military," says Petersen.
The new prime minister faces the further challenge of filling the shoes of Koizumi, who pushed through major economic reforms, backed a groundbreaking dispatch of soldiers to Iraq, and brought Japanese politics into the modern media age in his five years at the helm.
It was not clear, however, whether Abe's Cabinet selections would chart a bold new course for Japan.
A prominent former prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, called the choices "safe," and Abe faced early criticism that he favored those with close ties to himself or to ruling party cliques, rather than more original policy specialists.
"There is nothing new we can expect in the country's diplomacy from this Cabinet," said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor of international politics at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University.
"What we observe at the moment is that it will follow Koizumi's diplomacy: a firm alliance with the U.S.," he added.
Abe has indicated he would push ahead with Koizumi's economic reforms as well. On the financial side, Abe named economist Hiroko Ota as economy minister, and former economic planning chief Koji Omi as finance minister.
The new government will also have several new Cabinet portfolios: solving North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, retraining laid-off workers and others, technological innovation, and regional economic revitalization.
Abe signaled the primary directions of his government on Monday by choosing pro-growth fiscal conservative Hidenao Nakagawa and fellow nationalist Shoichi Nakagawa to two top posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Aso, returning for a second stint as foreign minister, set a summit with China at the top of the agenda for the new government.
"Now that we have new Prime Minister Abe, we will make efforts to achieve summit talks between the new prime minister and Chinese President Hu Jintao," Aso said.
Momentum has been building for such a meeting. Japan and China held vice-ministerial talks this week, and Aso met on Monday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Tokyo. The two agreed relations between Japan and China are "at an important period," the Foreign Ministry said.
Japan and China are at odds over interpretations of wartime history, exploitation of maritime resources, and island territories.
Hu has refused to meet with Koizumi since last year over his visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among Japan's war dead and is considered by critics to be a glorification of Tokyo's past militarism.
Abe has relatively little experience in government. He worked as an aide to his politician father Shintaro Abe, and then was elected to parliament in 1993, but was little known until he took the lead in 2002 in negotiating the release of Japanese abducted by North Korea.
Koizumi gave Abe his first Cabinet posting just last year, naming him to the high-profile position of chief Cabinet Secretary.
Koizumi left the Prime Minister's Office early Tuesday to cheers, holding a bouquet of roses.
"There is no end to reform," Koizumi said in a parting statement. "I hope that the public will work with the new prime minister to believe in Japan's future and continue the reform with courage and hope."