Tomomi Inada, Japan's new defence minister © AFP

Two weeks after being appointed defence minister, Tomomi Inada — the woman dubbed Japan’s Joan of Arc — is expected to skip a visit to the Yasukuni shrine honouring the country’s war dead as she tries to present a more moderate image.

Ms Inada, known for her hawkish views on Japan’s history and constitution, appears to have swerved controvsy by opting to travel to Djibouti on her first overseas trip as defence minister rather than mark the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second world war.

The appointment of Ms Inada has dismayed China and South Korea, whose relations with Japan have long been frayed by territorial and historical issues. Beijing and Seoul regard the Yasukuni shrine in Toyko as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and were waiting to see if the new minister would visit this year.

A decade ago, in a newspaper column, Ms Inada said that the prime minister’s visit to the shrine was “a declaration that Japan is a country in the true sense”.

Commentators in Japan believe 57-year-old Ms Inada’s performance in the sensitive defence role will be a litmus test for her chances of one day becoming Japan’s first female prime minister.

“If she takes a realistic approach, she will deeply disappoint her conservative support base, while relations with South Korea and the US will be damaged if she takes an extremely hawkish approach,” said Masatoshi Honda, a professor of politics at Kinjo university. “The question is, does she have the skills to strike a balance?”

In the past Ms Inada has said Japan should consider arming itself with nuclear weapons and has criticised the Tokyo tribunal that convicted Japanese leaders of war crimes. Five years ago she was denied entry into South Korea when she tried to visit the Korean-controlled Dokdo islands, known as Takeshima in Japan.

“My first impression of her was that she’s very aggressive,” said Katsuhiko Takaike, a lawyer who asked Ms Inada to join his court case questioning Japan’s wartime aggression. “She used to say what was on her mind, but she’s far more cautious as a politician.”

Born in Fukui prefecture and raised in Kyoto in western Japan, Ms Inada was influenced by her father, a nationalistic high school teacher, who was said to have withheld her pocket money as a child so she would not become greedy.

She says she started questioning historical facts taught in Japanese schools when she was in her thirties after watching a television documentary on the Tokyo tribunal.

As a lawyer she caught the attention of future prime minister Shinzo Abe with her involvement in a 2003 court case that she lost, representing the families of two Japanese military officers executed for their roles in the 1937 Nanking Massacre in China. Beijing believes that Japanese troops slaughtered some 300,000 people in the massacre.

Ms Inada entered politics in 2005 when, after a joint event with Mr Abe at the Yasukuni shrine marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, he suggested a change of career. “Until then, I had never considered becoming a politician,” Ms Inada recalled in a book.

The choice of a hardline conservative as defence minister comes at a particularly sensitive time for Japan after Mr Abe’s coalition won the two-thirds majority needed for his long-held aim of revising the pacifist constitution.

Tensions with Beijing have also been escalating in the dispute over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan Daioyu in China.

So far Ms Inada has been treading carefully, dodging sensitive questions by declining to comment on her activities as a lawyer and her stance on Japan’s history.

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