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Nationalism echoes in Japan campaign

TOKYO -- Be careful what you wish for. U.S. officials have long urged Japan to loosen limits on its military, bear more of the burden of its own defense and play a more prominent global role.

Now, Japanese politicians gearing up for a Dec. 16 parliamentary election are promising to do just that — but with a strain of strident nationalism that could give not only Asian neighbors but also Washington cause for concern.

“Who can protect Japan's beautiful seas? Who can protect our territory and our people's lives?” queried former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, standing before a huge Japanese national flag as he blasted the current government's handling of a territorial row with China in a recent speech.

“The crisis is before our very eyes ... We will take back our country, our nation.”

Opinion polls suggest Abe's opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will win the most seats in parliament's lower house, putting the hawkish lawmaker in pole position to become Japan's seventh prime minister in six years. He abruptly quit the job in 2007, when the LDP was in power, after a troubled year in office.

Parts of Abe's agenda, including calls to drop Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising its right of collective self-defense, or defending an ally under attack, and to boost defense spending after years of decline, would be welcome in Washington.

Abe also wants to revise Japan's U.S.-drafted constitution, never altered since it was adopted after World War Two. U.S. officials have indicated in the past that they would like to see Tokyo loosen constitutional restraints on its military to allow a bigger global security role.

But other aspects, such as an aggressive stance toward China that risks aggravating an already tense territorial row, and a desire to rewrite what conservatives see as overly apologetic accounts of Japan's wartime past, would not only upset China and South Korea but the United States as well.

“The United States has been welcoming, even encouraging nationalist politicians as long as they are keen on reform and that Japan should share more burden in the security arrangement,” said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.

“But maybe they are beginning to realize that the Japanese right is going too far and setting Japan on a collision course with China that might require American involvement.”

Abe, a 58-year-old political blue-blood, is hardly alone in his hawkish stance.

Popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's Japan Restoration Party, officially headed by former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist and China critic, comes in second in some recent opinion polls — ahead of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

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