JAPAN has a new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who, as the leader of a country of 128 million with the world s second larg-est economy, automatically joins the big leagues of international affairs.
Mr. Abe, 52, has a hard act to follow in retiring prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who not only engineered important chang-es in Japan during his tenure but also man-aged to stay in of?ce for ?ve-plus years, something of a record in modern Japan, a country with the habit of changing prime ministers every few years or less.
Mr. Koizumi was also probably the only Japanese prime minister since World War II who was instantly recognizable in the world media, partly because of his appear-ance and partly because of his personality. That probably had some value in Japan, and for Japan s heft in the world. Mr. Abe seems to be a more retiring soul.
Strangely enough to Americans, who are accustomed to choosing their primary po-litical leader in presidential elections, Mr. Abe, working in a parliamentary democ-racy like the United Kingdom, was chosen by his party, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to lead the party and the country.
Lest one have visions of a tea-room po-litical deal putting him where he is, Mr. Abe turns out to have impeccable credentials for Japan s prime ministership.
The highest priority issues facing him will be economic. Although Mr. Koizumi brought about substantial reforms, more are needed in Japan s still creaky industrial and ?nancial sectors if it is to continue to climb out of the economic doldrums some would say depression which characterized its situation in recent years.
On the international front, there is de?nitely patching up to do between Japan and its regional rivals, or allies, particu-larly China and the Koreas. One major chal-lenge: how to reconcile his own intention to strengthen Japan s defense with remaining on good terms with its neighbors.
Japanese military rearmament scares the daylights out of them. Mr. Abe needs the political support of those Japanese who liked the visits that previous prime minister Koizumi paid to the Yasukuni Shinto shrine to Japan s war dead, some of whom could be deemed war criminals.
So he has picked up a hard job. But it looks like he is up to it.