TOKYO -- One is a former prime minister known for his nationalistic views. A second is a hawkish former defense chief. And a third is the son of Tokyo's outspoken governor whose proposal to buy and develop a cluster of uninhabited islands claimed by both China and Japan has set off a territorial furor between the two countries.
A look at the top candidates to lead Japan's main opposition party -- and potentially to become Japan's next prime minister -- suggests that Japan may soon get a more nationalist government. That could ratchet up already tense relations with China and South Korea over territorial disputes that have flared in recent weeks and brought anti-Japanese demonstrations to dozens of Chinese cities.
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There is little sign that Japanese have grown more nationalistic, but the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is expected to get clobbered in elections that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says he will call soon. Voters are angry over Noda's push to double the sales tax and his party's failure to bring promised change to Japan's stodgy politics.
That leaves the opposition Liberal Democratic Party poised to regain the power it lost three years ago after decades of being Japan's dominant political force. Polls suggest the LDP would win the most seats in the more powerful lower house of parliament, although probably not a majority, so it would need to forge a governing coalition to rule.
If the LDP regains power, its new leader, to be chosen in a Sept. 26 party vote, would almost certainly become the next prime minister.
The LDP is a conservative, pro-U.S. party with a traditional suspicion of China. The five candidates running for its top job, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, have been taking turns calling on Japan to get tough with Beijing in the escalating dispute over the rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. The islands, near key shipping lanes and surrounded by rich fishing grounds and untapped natural resources, are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.
"Losing a piece of our territory eventually means losing the whole country," declared Ishiba, a security and national defense expert who is considered a hawk, a press conference Wednesday. He has said he would be in favor of developing the islands -- a move that would surely anger China.
"Our beautiful countryside and ocean are under threat," Abe, perhaps the most right-wing of the five, has said from the campaign trail.
Abe riled Asian neighbors when he was prime minister in 2006-07 by saying there was no proof Japan's military had coerced Chinese, Korean and other women into prostitution in military brothels during World War II. He later apologized, but lately he has been suggesting that a landmark 1993 apology for sex slavery may need revising.
Abe also has recently said he regrets not visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including executed war criminals, during his time as prime minister. This issue is important: Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni in the early 2000s put relations with China into a deep freeze.
Another front-runner in the LDP race is Nobuteru Ishihara, son of the Tokyo's stridently nationalistic governor Shintaro Ishihara.
The elder Ishihara set off the East China Sea flare-up by proposing in April that Tokyo's metropolitan government buy the islands from their private Japanese owners and build fishing facilities on them. That compelled the central government to buy the islands themselves to prevent efforts to build on them that could have escalated the dispute.
China still responded angrily, sending surveillance ships into waters near the islands and allowing protests that have raged for days. Japanese have been alarmed by footage of Chinese rioters attacking Japanese-owned companies in China.
While the younger Ishihara is less outspoken than his father, his blood ties would be a major obstacle for Beijing in particular.
"It's going to be very difficult for him to dissociate himself from his father," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "If you do have a nationalist in charge in Japan, they could make things worse. They certainly could throw oil on the fire."
China is not the only country clashing with Japan over land. Tensions with South Korea spiked after President Lee Myung-bak visited an island cluster called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan that is claimed by both countries but controlled by Seoul.
Japanese voters, however, may not share nationalist politicians' aggressive stance. The general population appears more deeply concerned about the stagnant economy, social security and overhauling energy policy in the wake of last year's nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Aside from the usual small protests outside the Chinese Embassy, by far right-wing demonstrators in black trucks blaring martial music, there have been virtually no public demonstrations in Japan over the East China Sea islands, while thousands gather regularly in front of the prime minister's residence to demand the end of nuclear power.
While some Japanese want a tough leader who can stand up to China, others are worried that if Abe, Ishiba or Ishihara become prime minister, ties with China and other neighbors will worsen.
"I'm worried this dispute could lead to war if any of these men become our leader," said Kaoru Hara, a 22-year-old advertising agency employee. "We need someone who can express Japan's position but also someone who can listen to China's side."
Still, China's rise and North Korea's attempts to fire a rocket near Japan earlier this year create an opportunity for some politicians to exploit.
"I don't think the country is moving to the right, but I think there's more room today to whip up more nationalist fervor because people are feeling a bit more vulnerable," said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Ishiba, who twice has held the top post in the nation's military, is the most popular choice among LDP supporters, according to a Kyodo News agency poll. He has a reputation for being sharp and a bit of a military geek. He has also suggested that one reason Japan should maintain its nuclear energy program is to keep open the option of developing a nuclear warhead -- although Japan currently has no such plans.
Ishihara, a former TV political reporter, has stressed the importance of dialogue with China. But last week, he said he believed it was important that the emperor be able to visit and pray at Yasukuni Shrine, which would surely upset China.
Two other candidates for the LDP's presidency, former economic and fiscal policy minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura, are both less nationalistic but seen as having little chance of winning.
Abe's track record as prime minister was that of a nationalist ideologue: He urged a revision of Japan's pacifist constitution, pressed for patriotic education, upgraded the defense agency to ministry status and pushed for Japan to have a greater international peacekeeping role.
He has also reached out to the brash, young mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, a rising star who wants to slash the number of seats in parliament and has espoused nationalistic views. He recently formed his own national political party that analysts predict could win a chunk of seats in elections and be a part of an LDP-led coalition.
Abe blasted China over the anti-Japanese protests Wednesday, saying that if Beijing can't protect Japanese living in China, it "should not enjoy membership in the international community."
"In Japan," he said, "there is no flag-burning, there is no harm to Chinese nationals in this country, and we should be proud of that."