Shinzo Abe announced his candidacy on Friday to be Japan's next prime minister, a post he looks certain to win, and said he wanted his country to forge a stronger role on the world stage and improve ties with Asia.
Abe, a conservative cabinet minister with strong views on Japan's disputes with China and South Korea, stressed economic growth as the key to fiscal reform a departure from Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's motto of "no growth without reform."
Abe reiterated his call for even closer ties with the United States and said he wanted to revise the nation's pacifist constitution, unaltered since it was drafted by US occupation forces after Japan's defeat in World War II.
Washington has been keen to see Japan change its constitution so it can take a bigger security role in the alliance.
"As the next LDP president, I'd like to take the lead to put revision of the constitution on the political agenda," Abe, 51, told a convention of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the southern city of Hiroshima.
"I'd like to draft a new constitution with my own hands."
Abe, the chief cabinet secretary, was speaking shortly before formally announcing his candidature for LDP president.
The LDP will hold an election for party president on September 20.
Since the party controls parliament's powerful lower house, its new president is assured of succeeding Koizumi, whose term as LDP chief runs out this month.
Abe has won plaudits at home for his tough diplomatic stance. "I want to change Japanese diplomacy to one where Japan takes the lead and makes its stance clear," he told the party convention.
The soft-spoken Abe, who comes from an elite political family, first rose to prominence by taking a tough stance against North Korea after Pyongyang admitted in 2002 to past abductions of Japanese citizens.
He is way ahead of his rivals, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, in surveys of general voter preference.
That is a key factor since the party is keen to choose a popular leader ahead of the upper house election.
"He's young and I'd like to see a generation change," said Yuki Sato, a 39-year-old housewife and city assembly member from Abe's hometown in southwestern Japan who was attending the LDP convention. She added she expected the party would fare better at the polls with Abe at the helm than under his rivals.
But analysts and some LDP lawmakers have voiced concerns that Abe may further strain Tokyo's ties with China and South Korea, already chilled by Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Abe said on Friday that both Japan and its neighbors should work for better ties. "We need to try to improve relations with China and South Korea."
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said in Seoul that he had hopes for a thaw if Abe took office, but added Japan should rectify its view of history.
"I think there is an opportunity for a change and I certainly hope it happens," Ban said in an address to a medium forum.
Abe, who has defended Koizumi's pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine and gone there himself in the past, said that foreign countries should not "dictate" to Japan on the topic.
He also called for strategic dialogue with countries such as the United States, India and Australia and European nations that share "common values" with Japan, such as democracy and freedom.
(China Daily September 2, 2006)