Yoshihiko Noda was elected Tuesday as Japan's sixth prime minister in five years, facing such a staggering array of domestic problems that the last thing he needs is a sour relationship with China, his country's biggest trading partner.
Yet Noda is being viewed warily in China, whose media are playing up his comments supporting a controversial Tokyo shrine honoring World War II dead, including war criminals, and that Beijing's military buildup is creating regional unease.
"'Hawk' to become Japan's new prime minister," said the nationalistic Global Times.
Regarded at home as a smart but bland fiscal conservative from humble roots, Noda replaces the unpopular Naoto Kan, who quit amid widespread criticism over his administration's handling of the tsunami and nuclear disasters. A former finance minister, Noda will likely focus on those immense challenges, as well as reviving the stagnant economy and reducing Japan's massive national debt.
But in China, the media is portraying Noda as a right-wing nationalist and has predicted a rocky period for China-Japan relations. Even more liberal newspapers highlighted his comments, first made in 2005 and reiterated earlier this month, that convicted Japanese wartime leaders enshrined at Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine should no longer be seen as criminals.
Yasukuni visits by postwar politicians have often enraged Japan's neighbors, who bore the brunt of Japan's colonial aggression and see the shrine as a glorification of militarism and a symbol of Tokyo's failure to fully atone for its past imperialism. When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used to visit the shrine it triggered rage and a five-year chill in relations with China and South Korea.
Japan, long used to being the region's dominant power, has been unsettled by China's fast-accelerating power over the past decade, even as the countries — now the world's second- and third-largest economies — built thriving commercial relations. In this rivalry, Beijing has often appeared to test Tokyo's mettle, at times taking advantage of political transitions in Japan.
On Monday, after Noda was elected head of the ruling Democratic party, setting up Tuesday's parliamentary vote, China's official news agency warned him not to ignore Beijing's "core interests." In a harshly worded editorial, Xinhua demanded Noda not visit Yasukuni and said Tokyo must recognize China's claim over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku, or Diaoyutai in Chinese.
Ties between the countries deteriorated sharply last year when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested — and later released — by Japan after his boat collided with a Japanese patrol boat in disputed waters near the islands.
The territorial dispute could flare again. Last week, two Chinese fisheries patrol boats sailed into contested waters near the islands, drawing a rebuke from Tokyo.
Noda, 54, and the rest of Kan's Cabinet chose not to visit Yasukuni this year, and analysts in Japan believe Noda is unlikely to do so as prime minister, or make any strident statements about war criminals or Japan's wartime past.
"There's no way he is going to take some action on this," said Naoto Nonaka, a political science professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. "There's too much else to do."
Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said Noda is likely to play down his past comments.
"A lot of people learned a lesson from the Koizumi 'ice age,'" Nakano said. "He has no interest in complicating his situation by creating an acrimonious atomsphere when he needs to cooperate with Asian nations to get out of Japan's economic quagmire."
China has overtaken the U.S. as Japan's biggest trading partner, doing $176 billion worth of trade for the first half of the year. As China's middle class grows, the country's burgeoning market holds vast potential for Japanese exporters. Japan also is striving to draw more Chinese tourists.
Liang Yunxiang, a Japan expert at Peking University, said historical and territorial issues have been perennial sore spots, and so personalities and attitudes of leaders matter in whether these problems affect the broader relationship.
"Yoshihiko Noda has not been friendly to China, so it's not a good start," he said.
As is standard practice, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao sent a formal telegram congratulating Noda and urging that both sides work together to promote cooperation.
The mass circulation Asashi newspaper in Japan noted Tuesday that his past comments "that the A-class war criminals are not legally guilty of war crimes is causing some waves as he is taking the helm."
As prime minister, "Noda has to be more careful in how he addresses Japan shared history with Asia," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.
"I don't think that this is a huge blunder that's going to undermine ties but I think that he needs to be very careful from now on," he said. "Clearly Japan's economic future is closely tied to China's rise and it's not helpful for the positive economic relationship to held hostage to history."
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