TOKYO, Oct 31 (AFP): Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Monday picked outspoken conservatives as his new top ministers, probably spelling more tension with Asian neighbours in his remaining year in office and then a hawkish successor.
Koizumi, the longest serving Japanese premier in a generation, reshuffled his cabinet after winning a landslide victory in an election he cast as a referendum on reforming the economy and bringing new faces into politics.
But he tapped two party stalwarts-both grandsons of former prime ministers-as his top aides. Shinzo Abe, 51, was given the powerful post of chief cabinet secretary while Taro Aso, a hardliner on China, became foreign minister.
"The cabinet has moved to the right with the reshuffle," said Sadafumi Kawato, a professor of Japanese politics at Tohoku University. "Japanese foreign policy will get closer to America and remain far apart from China and South Korea."
As chief cabinet secretary, who is the government spokesman and the acting premier when Koizumi travels abroad, Abe strengthens his position as a frontrunner to be premier when Koizumi leaves office in September 2006.
"It is one step ahead for Abe to become prime minister," said Harumi Arima, a political analyst and author.
Both Abe and Aso are staunch defenders of Koizumi's visits-the latest being on October 17 -- to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead including notorious war criminals.
In April Aso was the only cabinet member to pay a pilgrimage to Yasukuni for its spring festival just as Koizumi was seeking a summit in Jakarta with Chinese President Hu Jintao to ease tensions that have risen this year.
Countries like China and South Korea which were once occupied by Japan's imperial army say the visits show Japan is unwilling to atone for its militaristic and bloody past.
Aso, addressing his first press conference as the incoming foreign minister, said the Yasukuni shrine was not the only issue between the neighbours and urged dialogue.
"Apart from that one particular issue, Japan-China relations as a whole are basically proceeding well in such areas as economic relations and exchanges of youth culture," Aso said.
"There is a difference of view and there is no other way than continuing talks," he said.
The new Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe, known for his ease with the media, has won a public following for his strongly worded rebukes of North Korea. He has demanded the communist state come clean on its past abductions of Japanese citizens, calling again Monday for Pyongyang to "show a sincere attitude."