Leading Japanese prime ministerial candidate Shinzo Abe said Monday he hopes to amend the country's post-war pacifist constitution within five years.
Abe, who has an overwhelming lead in the race to replace Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi this month, also said in a televised debate with his rivals that he would work to repair damaged ties with China and South Korea.
The front-runner favors a more assertive Japanese foreign policy, and pledged to push for revisions in the 1947 pacifist constitution to make it easier for the country's military to join peacekeeping teams and other foreign operations.
"Amending the constitution is not something we can achieve in one or two years. I am thinking more of a five-year span," Abe said in his debate with Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso.
"We will make efforts to further the national debate and attain the required two-thirds consensus," Abe said, referring to the portion of parliamentary support needed to pass a revision. "If we make progress, we may bring our plans forward."
Abe also hinted that he might visit the Yasukuni Shrine as premier, though he said such a pilgrimage would not be in his official capacity. China and South Korea both invaded by Japan in the past have strongly protested such visits, since the shrine honors war criminals among Japan's war dead.
"I will not say, because it will become a foreign policy issue," he said when asked if he would visit as prime minister. "In any case, the visits are not official."
Japanese leaders over the years have attempted to blunt the impact of Yasukuni visits by saying they were private. Koizumi, however, has refused to make such a distinction, though he has signed the guest book there as prime minister.
Despite the divisive Yasukuni issue, Abe said he was prepared to improve frayed ties with China amid reports he is making efforts to meet with President Hu Jintao at a regional meeting in November.
Abe is widely seen as the favorite to win the September 20 election for a new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The party president is virtually assured of becoming prime minister because the party controls the powerful lower house of Parliament.
The LDP proposed constitutional amendments last year that would create an official role for the Japanese armed forces, allow them to assist military allies and help with armed international peacekeeping.
(China Daily September 12, 2006)