Race to Lead Japan May Turn on Asia Ties





With Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set to retire in September, the battle in the governing Liberal Democratic Party over who will succeed him as party leader and prime minister is well under way. So far, the race is turning into a referendum on what to do about Japan's troubled relations with its Asian neighbors, especially China.

Japan's relations with China and South Korea have chilled, particularly in the last year, because of several disputes over history, territory and Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial where the country's highest-ranking war criminals are enshrined.

Polls here indicate the race is now between politicians with starkly different views: Shinzo Abe, 51, the chief cabinet secretary, who has said that a Japanese prime minister should visit the Yasukuni Shrine and who has become extremely popular by being tough on North Korea and China; and Yasuo Fukuda, 69, a former chief cabinet secretary, who has criticized Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Shinto shrine and talked of rebuilding friendly ties with the rest of East Asia.

Although neither has yet declared his candidacy for the September party election, Mr. Abe leads in the polls. Mr. Fukuda has narrowed the gap significantly in recent weeks, however, buttressed by what experts say is the growing public sentiment that fixing ties with China should be one of the next prime minister's top priorities.



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