New Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has limited experience in foreign relations and is not well known overseas--except in South Korea and China, where he is regarded warily.
Noda upset the two Asian neighbors when he remarked Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, that "Class-A war criminals are not war criminals."
Noda likely faces choppy waters in the sea of diplomacy.
"A hard-liner from a military family" ran the headline of an Aug. 29 article by China News Service, a news agency for overseas Chinese, profiling Noda after his election as the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's new president.
Noting that his father served in the Self-Defense Forces, the article described Noda as "a hard-liner in foreign relations and on the military front."
It went on: "He has maintained that Japan should proceed with military use of space and has actively argued that Japan should enact a basic law on security."
Noda, in the words of the People's Daily Online, is perceived in China as a "typical conservative."
A commentary by the state-run Xinhua News Agency stressed: "Japan's new prime minister needs to respect China's core interests."
"Noda takes a hard-line stance when it comes to diplomacy and perceptions of history," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University. "This may have a negative impact on the mutually beneficial relationship between China and Japan. I hopes he behaves prudently so as not to further hurt bilateral relations."
The South Korean media is also visibly cautious of Noda.
His remark on war criminals was widely played in the Korean media as was another about foreign nationals with permanent resident status. Many of them are ethnic Koreans and their descendents. He said they should "become naturalized Japanese if they want suffrage" in local elections.
Noda became Finance Minister in June 2010. So far, he has refrained from visiting war-related Yasukuni Shrine on the Aug. 15 anniversary.
However, the Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily, said: "Noda has a far-right and militaristic view of history. He says there are no war criminals in Japan in the first place. It is very likely he will pay a visit to worship at Yasukuni Shrine."
The shrine honors Japan's war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals, among them wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
A senior South Korean government official offered a more diplomatic view. "He will begin to speak and behave more prudently once he settles in as prime minister. But what rather worries me is whether Japan can find true political stability."
Another government official said: "If South Korea and Japan fail to get along well, that may have a negative impact on the issue of Pyongyang's nuclear development and on tripartite cooperation, including China."
Noda's comment on war criminals is also reverberating at home.
Japanese poet Itsuko Ishikawa, 78, was scathing.
In her collection of poems "Chidorigafuchi e Ikimashita ka" (Did you go to the Chidorigafuchi national cemetery for the war dead?), she attempted to speak for those killed in the Pacific War.
"He hurt the feelings of the Chinese and the Koreans, toward whom one should show genuine consideration when raising this issue. This would be even more the case if he continued to utter such remarks as prime minister," she said.
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