World News

PM Abe touts "Beautiful Japan" despite poll defeat

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office 10 months ago pledging to build a “Beautiful Nation” proud of its traditions and ready to play a bigger global role.

And despite his ruling camp’s battering in an upper house election on Sunday as voters focused more on scandals and bungled pensions, Abe pledged to stick to his conservative agenda.

“The results reflect people’s voices, but the policies I have promoted were not wrong,” a tired and drawn Abe reiterated on Sunday, as he faced the public after an election that robbed his coalition of its upper house majority and could yet force him from office.

“I have the understanding of the people for my ‘Beautiful Nation’-building and I believe that proceeding in that direction is the way to win back people’s trust.”

The 52-year-old Abe, Japan’s first prime minister to be born after World War Two, vowed on his appointment last September to rewrite the country’s U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution and revive traditional Japanese values and nurture patriotism.

“As for constitutional reform, I would like to do that during my tenure,” Abe told a news conference after acknowledging defeat and taking the blame for the loss.

Sticking to that stance, though, may not play well with voters.

A survey by private broadcaster TBS showed that around 63 percent of respondents did not support Abe’s vision of a “Beautiful Country” and close to 19 percent didn’t understand it. Only around 18 percent who backed the concept.

“I don’t like his beautiful country idea, I don’t understand it, it’s not clear what kind of ‘Beautiful Country’ he wants to create,” said Shunichi Shoji, a 66-year-old white-collar worker at a construction firm.

Despite tough talk towards China before taking office, Abe disarmed critics with an October trip to Beijing and Seoul to warm tied chilled by his predecessor’s annual visits to a shrine seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Long popular for his hard line on North Korea, Abe initially managed to avoid alienating both his right-wing supporters and Asian neighbors by refusing to say whether he would visit the Yasukuni Shrine himself. But the honeymoon did not last long.

In March, Abe said there was no proof that Japan’s army or government kidnapped women to act as sex slaves for soldiers during World War Two, comments that sparked outrage in the United States and across Asia.

Abe is a great admirer of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet minister who was listed but never convicted as a war criminal and served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960.

Kishi, a keen advocate of rewriting the constitution, resigned after angering the electorate by forcing through a revised security treaty with the United States.

Abe’s credentials as a leader suffered from a long series of scandals and gaffes by his ministers and appointees, ranging from fudged expenses to a statement from his health minister referring to women as “birth-giving machines”.

What may have been the decisive blow came in May, as the public realized the government had mislaid millions of their pension premiums.

Abe vowed to sort out the mess, only to be sent reeling when his scandal-tainted farm minister hanged himself.