Abe's plan to restore Japan's greatness calls for a strong economy, pragmatic diplomacy and unshakable national security under the Japan-U.S. alliance, which allows for 50,000 American troops to be stationed in Japan.
For now, the hawkish Abe appears to be setting aside the nationalistic agenda he had to shelve when he resigned from his first term in office, in 2006-2007, for health reasons.
Abe favors revising the country's pacifist constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, to give Japan's military a larger role. Such a prospect alarms China, which suffered invasion and occupation under Japan's imperial troops a century ago.
Abe indicated Monday that the legal groundwork for such changes has yet to be laid, and that the economy would take priority.
But the Liberal Democratic-led government is certain to adopt a strong defensive posture in territorial disputes with South Korea and with an increasingly assertive Beijing.
"As the security environment surrounding Japan has grown tougher, we have to think about what we need to defend Japan from outside threats," Abe said.
Revising the constitution would require two-thirds approval by both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Polls show the public are less interested in such matters than in reviving the economy and rebuilding areas of northeastern Japan devastated by the March 2011 tsunami, where very little progress has been made on reconstruction.
Abe has pledged to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc whose ground rules will require Japan to eventually dismantle protections for farmers and to open its markets wider to foreign goods and services, including health services. Experts say it will take years for such reforms to be implemented, against strong opposition from powerful farm and medical lobbies.
Abe has also proposed major labor market and childcare reforms to keep more women in the workplace and is pushing for stronger English-language education and more educational exchanges to help Japan shore up its global competitiveness. But many of these changes risk angering key constituencies and may be stymied by stubborn bureaucratic resistance to change.
"It is not at all clear to me that they will have the strength to break the opposition of much of urban Japan, for example, to constitutional change, to labor market reform, to social security reform," said Ken Courtis, a former Goldman Sachs vice chairman and investment banker.
The relatively low turnout in Sunday's vote, the third lowest in the post-war era, suggests the Liberal Democrats have little margin for error.
"In reality what we have is a government with a more and more narrow electoral base committing to engage in reforms," Courtis said.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi, Emily Wang and Miki Toda contributed to this report.
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