TOKYO, Sept 17, 2010 (AFP) - Japan's new foreign minister was once likened to Tony Blair for his telegenic charm. But as China is finding, he is also an unabashed hawk who wants to revise the country's pacifist constitution.
Seiji Maehara, 48, from the conservative wing of the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), replaced Katsuya Okada as the nation's top diplomat on Friday in the second cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
The ambitious politician had maintained a high profile as land and transport minister since the DPJ took power a year ago in a landslide victory that ended nearly half a century of right-wing rule.
His profile is about to go still higher with Japan and China locked in their worst diplomatic spat in years, after a Chinese trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels collided near a disputed island chain in the East China Sea.
Not mincing his words, Maehara this week brushed aside China's claim to the disputed islands, which are called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
"Territorial problems in the East China Sea do not exist, no matter what kind," he said before inspecting two coastguard patrol ships on the southern Ishigaki island, where the arrested Chinese trawler captain is being detained.
"We should take a rigid and resolute response to any threat to Japan's sovereignty," said Maehara.
He is also known for his strong stance towards North Korea, which has faced stern pressure from Japan over its nuclear and missile programmes and the past kidnappings of Japanese nationals.
As transport minister, Maehara was front and centre of efforts to revive struggling Japan Airlines and to help Toyota Motor manage its massive recall crisis.
In the DPJ, Maehara is known as one of the more vocal critics of backroom fixer Ichiro Ozawa, whom Prime Minister Kan defeated in a DPJ leadership election on Tuesday.
After graduating from Kyoto University in 1987, Maehara studied at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a private institute known for an unorthodox curriculum designed to foster modern political leaders.
Maehara was first elected as a lawmaker in 1993 and in 2005 became president of the then-opposition DPJ, defeating Kan in an internal party election.
The media labelled him "a Japanese Tony Blair", likening him to the former British prime minister for his relative youth and ease in front of the cameras.
But he was forced to resign only six months into the job after his party had to withdraw an accusation that a top aide to then conservative prime minister Junichiro Koizumi had accepted secret cash.
Maehara has previously said he would refrain from visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japanese war dead including convicted war criminals, and has suggested Japan build an alternative to the Tokyo shrine.
Koizumi made annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, to the ire of neighbouring countries such as China and the Koreas that suffered the brunt of Japanese militarism.
Maehara supports revisions to Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, which forever renounced war as an instrument of foreign policy. He would instead redefine the status of the Self-Defence Force, Japan's military.