Minoru Morita feels something different for Shinzo Abe. "I think he is the most dangerous politician in Japan," he says. Morita, a liberal political commentator, believes a disquieting nationalism is on the rise in Japan, and he thinks that Abe's immense popularity is a troubling sign of that wave. "Of all the 700 or so Diet members, Abe is the most right-wing, the hottest, the most nationalist," Morita says. "He is the politician who could lead this country to war."
So who's right about Abe, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, and the man who will almost certainly win the contest to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Sept. 20?and therefore the next Prime Minister of Japan? Try both. Even more so than his popular boss Junichiro Koizumi, who steps down at the end of the month after more than five years in power, Abe is an unabashed conservative, eager to strengthen the U.S. alliance and promote a more assertive role for Japan abroad?despite the risk of further antagonizing neighbors like China and South Korea. At home he promotes patriotism as an answer to Japan's social ills, and opposed efforts led by Koizumi to allow a woman to ascend to the imperial throne. But to his allies, the aggressive attitude that critics like Morita find alarming is just part of Abe's effort to help Japan become a "normal nation," free to act confidently on the global stage. How you view Abe depends on what you think normal means for Japan. "Abe will stand up and make firm decisions for the Japanese people," says Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP foreign-affairs expert and Abe ally. "But he's not a hard-liner against China or anyone. He's a strategist." A hard-line nationalist or a soft-talking, sympathetic pragmatist; an LDP man to the core or someone who will continue the turn-the-world-upside-down instincts of his mentor Koizumi, Abe is preparing to take the leadership of the world's second-largest economy?and Asia's most advanced democracy?as an enigma, inside and outside his country.
At 51, Abe would be the youngest Japanese Prime Minister in postwar history. His crushing lead in the LDP race?Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, his only opponents, are way behind?means he has been able to run a cautious, purposefully vague campaign, releasing a policy platform that runs to just four pages. "Right now he has the ability to be all things to all people," says Kent Calder, director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "But that will narrow over time." What's certain is that Abe's agenda will be as long as his track record is short: repairing relations with Japan's Asian neighbors, continuing Koizumi's uneven economic reforms, fending off a resurgent political opposition. To succeed, Abe must be as strong as his supporters hope and his critics fear, but use a lighter touch than his predecessor. "Koizumi destroyed the LDP, but he hasn't rebuilt it," says former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. "Abe needs to fix the party. He needs to fix what's broken in Japan."