TOKYO – Japan's newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got down to his first full day of work Wednesday, calling for talks with China and South Korea.
Optimism over the new leader sent Tokyo stocks surging. A poll put his Cabinet approval rating at 65 percent.
Abe also agreed to keep close ties with the United States, promising to meet U.S. President George W. Bush at a regional conference in November, during the two leaders' first phone conference, according to officials and news reports.
Abe has declared Tokyo's military alliance with Washington the basis of Japan's security and foreign policy. Under a mutual security pact, the U.S. has about 50,000 troops stationed throughout Japan.
But the new leader faces challenges in repairing Japan's relations with neighboring countries, which have hit their lowest point in decades over former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a war shrine linked to Japan's past militarism.
China and South Korea, both brutally colonized by Japan in the last century, have refused top-level talks with Koizumi over the issue.
New chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Abe was ready to meet with South Korean or Chinese leaders at any time.
"We both share an understanding that we should work to hold top-level talks as early as possible," Shiozaki said, but adding there were no specific plans. "It is necessary for both sides to make an effort," he said.
South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Lee Kyu-hyung said Wednesday he expected Tokyo to make "sincere and active" efforts to improve relations. Beijing has also urged Abe to pursue better bilateral ties.
Earlier Wednesday, Abe huddled with his new Cabinet and made a flurry of sub-Cabinet level appointments to what Shiozaki dubbed "Team Abe." The premier has said he wants to strengthen his office and reorganize its operations into a body that more closely resembles the U.S. White House, with a crew of advisors and more autonomy.
"I'd like you to take active political leadership and engage in good teamwork," Abe told his staff at a meeting Wednesday which was aired by public broadcaster NHK.
Team Abe has a lot on its plate. During his party campaign, Abe outlined a wide-ranging agenda that promised to continue structural reforms started under Koizumi, to raise Japan's overseas standing, strengthen its alliance with Washington, and push North Korea to come clean on its past abductions of Japanese citizens.
Other items on Abe's radar include fiscal reform, measures to combat Japan's falling birth rate and revamping the country's education system.
Initial forecasts have been mixed over whether Abe and his team — which includes many conservatives close to the premier — can effectively tackle that agenda.
"The Cabinet choices strongly suggest they were doled out for support," the national daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, said in an editorial published Wednesday.
"Large fears remain over whether (Abe's team) can forcefully propel the policies Abe has outlined," Yomiuri said. "There's a danger that reforms could stagnate."
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper pointed to the choice of foreign policy hawks like Taro Aso for foreign minister and party policy chief Shoichi Nakagawa, and said, "We question whether this administration is serious about mending ties with Asia."
Japanese markets responded positively, however. The benchmark Nikkei 225 index made its highest percentage gain in two months after Abe appointed market-friendly financial veteran Koji Omi as finance minister.
Omi led Japan's Economic Planning Agency in the late 1990s and was responsible for championing many of the country's early reforms. He is supported by minister in charge of economic and fiscal policy Hiroko Ota, an academic who has served as director for economic assessment at the Cabinet Office.
"The market welcomed the Abe administration's coming to power," said Nagayuki Yamagishi, an investment strategist with Mitsubishi UFJ Securities. "The government may come up with necessary steps to keep the country's economic growth on track."
Team Abe also performed well in overnight popularity polls. Kyodo News agency said Abe's new Cabinet had the support of 65 percent of those it polled Tuesday and Wednesday, against 16 percent of those not in favor of the new leadership.
Still, that compares with the over 80 percent ratings the popular Koizumi garnered immediately after he took office in 2001.
"We don't feel the passion for reform that Abe should have inherited from Koizumi," the daily Mainichi Shimbun said.
Kyodo said it surveyed 1,464 people by phone, of whom 1,035 responded. It did not provide a margin of error.