Nationalist Shinzo Abe was assured of victory in Tuesday's parliamentary election for prime minister, with his Cabinet picks expected to reflect his aims for a diplomatically assertive and economically dynamic Japan.
Abe, 52, the scion of a prominent political family, won a landslide victory in last week's ruling party presidential election, making it all but certain that parliament would choose him to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Koizumi's Cabinet resigned en masse Tuesday morning as a procedural move to pave the way for the new government, and the parliamentary vote for prime minister was to follow in the afternoon. Presuming he wins, Abe would then name his Cabinet picks before presenting himself before Emperor Akihito.
Koizumi left the Prime Minister's Office with a bouquet of flowers in his hands as supporters cheered, ending more than five years in office marked by far-reaching changes such as passage of legislation to privatize the postal service.
"There is no end to reform," Koizumi said in a parting statement. "I hope that the public will work with the new prime minister to believe in Japan's future and continue the reform with courage and hope."
Abe campaigned on pledges to maintain the security alliance with the United States, revise the pacifist constitution to give the military more room for action, push ahead with Koizumi's economic reforms, and reintroduce patriotic education.
He signaled the primary directions of his government on Monday by choosing a pro-growth fiscal conservative and a fellow nationalist Cabinet minister to two top posts in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Hidenao Nakagawa - considered one of Abe's closest aides - as secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Nakagawa backs better relations with China, cuts in budget spending and has argued against raising taxes.
Abe also tapped a foreign policy hawk, Shoichi Nakagawa, to head the LDP's policy research council. He supports a hard line on North Korea, history textbooks that play down Japanese wartime atrocities, and visits to Yasukuni war shrine.
News reports said Foreign Minister Taro Aso, 66, who came second in last week's LDP leadership race, was expected to get a key Cabinet post, possibly staying on in his current position. Kyodo News agency said Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki, 55, could become the next chief Cabinet secretary, succeeding Abe.
Former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, 61, was also mentioned in reports as a possible education minister, a post he held most recently in 2001. The conservative was foreign minister under Koizumi until a Cabinet reshuffling last fall.
Abe was also reportedly planning to create several new Cabinet portfolios - solving North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, retraining laid-off workers and others, technological innovation, and regional economic revitalization.
The relatively youthful nationalist - he will be Japan's youngest postwar prime minister - will take office as momentum builds for repairing Tokyo's frayed ties with Asian neighbors China and South Korea.
Japan and China held vice-ministerial talks this week and Abe's aides say they are working behind the scenes to quickly set up a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao - the first meeting between Japanese and Chinese leaders since April 2005.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso met Monday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Tokyo on Monday. The two agreed relations between Japan and China are "at an important period," the Foreign Ministry said.
Japan and China are at odds over interpretations of wartime history, exploitation of maritime resources, and island territories.
Hu has refused to meet with Koizumi since last year over his visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors war criminals among Japan's war dead and is considered by critics to be a glorification of Tokyo's past militarism.
Abe takes office with relatively little experience in government. He worked as an aide to his politician father Shintaro Abe, and then was elected to parliament in 1993, but was little known until he took the lead in 2002 in negotiating the release of Japanese abducted by North Korea.
Koizumi gave Abe his first Cabinet posting just last year, naming him to the high-profile position of chief Cabinet Secretary. The job gave Abe - Koizumi's first choice to succeed him - with daily exposure to the public.
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