Shinzo Abe returns as Japanese PM after snap election

Shinzo Abe returns as Japanese PM after snap election

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised Wednesday at the start of his new term to revive Japan's economy so he can pursue "powerful diplomacy", but China's state media warned him to be wary about changing the pacifist constitution.

The lower house voted overwhelmingly to confirm 60-year-old Abe, with 328 votes against 73 for acting opposition leader Katsuya Okada.

That was followed by an upper house poll which officially endorsed Abe as premier following his sweeping election victory this month.

His new cabinet was largely unchanged with Taro Aso returning as deputy premier and finance minister, Fumio Kishida as foreign minister and Yoichi Miyazawa in the industry minister post.

Industry is a key portfolio that oversees Japan's nuclear power sector, as Abe looks to restart more atomic reactors shuttered after the 2011 meltdown crisis at the Fukushima plant.

The only new face was Gen Nakatani, replacing Akinori Eto as defence minister after Eto declined reappointment in the midst of a political funding scandal.

Nakatani, 57, headed the defence agency - later upgraded to a ministry - in 2001-2002. On top of trying to kickstart the world's number three economy, Abe has vowed to pursue a nationalist agenda, including persuading a sceptical public of the need to revise the constitution.

He wants Japan's powerful military to have the power to come to the aid of allies such as the United States if US forces are attacked. The attempt to alter the charter, imposed by the US after the end of World War II, "is a historic challenge but it is difficult to do", Abe told a news conference late Wednesday.

His efforts have proved divisive at home and strained already tense relations with China.

"Abe and his new defence minister... need to tread carefully," China's official Xinhua news agency said Wednesday.

"The two both advocate a stronger role for Japan's Self-Defence Forces (military), and the international community should keep a wary eye on them and constantly remind them not to go too far."

Relations, however, have begun to thaw after a more than two-year chill that Beijing blamed partly on Abe's provocative nationalism, including a visit to a controversial war shrine, and equivocations on Japan's wartime record of enslaving women for sex.

Style over substance?

The prime minister's incumbent cabinet resigned en masse Wednesday morning, following the ruling coalition's victory in December 14 polls that were billed as a referendum on Abe's economic growth blitz, dubbed Abenomics.

But many observers said the snap election was more likely aimed at fending off rivals before a ruling party leadership vote next year.

"I've been saying (resurrecting) the economy is my top priority," Abe said.

"Japan's economy has been sluggish under more than 15 years of deflation, which made Japan's weight in the international community decline and made Japan's diplomacy and security policy weak," he said.

"We can pursue powerful diplomacy only after we obtain a strong economy."

Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition swept the ballot, winning a two-thirds majority in the lower house. The upper chamber is also controlled by his ruling bloc.

Japan had appeared on track for recovery after Abe swept to power in late 2012, but an April sales tax rise slammed the brakes on growth and plunged the economy into recession - prompting the premier to delay a second rise that had been set for next year.

As a first step, Abe said his government would announce fresh measures later this week, partially financed by a supplementary budget reportedly worth some 3.0 trillion yen ($25 billion) to counter the post tax-rise downturn.

Among the new measures are housing loan subsidies and tuition support for students, the Yomiuri newspaper and other media reported.

Abenomics - a blend of big government spending, monetary easing and reforms to the highly regulated economy - has helped exporters by sending the yen sharply lower and boosted stocks.

But Abe's failure to implement some of the tough changes which economists say are needed - freeing up the labour market and tackling an inefficient agricultural sector - has left the premier open to the charge that he is pursuing style over substance.

Analysts say the election victory was less a resounding endorsement of Abe and his policies than a symptom of a weak and fragmented opposition offering few credible alternatives.

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