Shinzo Abe, the man who pledged to restore Japan’s dignity and revive its economy with his “Abenomics” signing policy, resigned annearly eight years as Prime Minister, blaming his health.
Abe, who will turn 66 next month, suffered from ulcerative colitis since his teenage years. Chronic disease is believed to be made worse by stress.
“I can’t be prime minister if I can’t make the best decisions for the people,” he told media in Tokyo on Friday, after weeks of speculation about his health and two visits to the hospital in a week.
“I have decided to leave my post. “
Abe’s departure echoes his resignation in 2007 when, after less than a year at work and struggling with the economy, a retirement disaster and political scandal, he suddenly resigned, blaming his illness. This time around, he came under criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which further undermined his already declining popularity.
Abe was born in 1954 in Tokyo, according to his official biography, to a family with a formidable political pedigree – his father was foreign minister, his grandfather and a great uncle both prime ministers. It was from his father’s former seat that Abe was first elected to parliament in 1993, quickly climbing the ranks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and becoming the country’s youngest leader in 2006.
He returned to power for an unprecedented second term in 2012.
In a magazine article, Abe said his initial failure motivated him to “give everything for Japan.”
He offered voters, worn out by decades of deflation and devastation from the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of the previous year, a plan to revive the dying economy and help Japan stand on the world stage, influenced by his conservative roots and the experience of his grandfather.
Nobusuke Kishi was a cabinet minister during World War II and was imprisoned as a war criminal, but he became Prime Minister for three years from 1957. One of his main goals was to revise the pacifist constitution of Japan written by the United States.
A graduate in political science, Abe also wanted to reform the constitution and adopt a more assertive diplomatic policy. He centralized foreign policy in the Prime Minister’s office and sought to create a national security architecture in the mold of Western democracies like the United States and Australia.
“Abe made his mark by transforming the political environment surrounding security,” said Professor Rikki Kersten, an expert on Japanese politics at Murdoch University in Australia. “It’s actually an institutionalized change. In times of crisis or threat, security policy is now the political area where Japan is able to react quickly and effectively because it has overcome the bureaucratic obstacles that plague all other areas. It will not be canceled. “
With China also becoming more assertive, Abe has also cultivated closer ties with the United States, increased defense spending, and reached out to neighbors in the Asian region.
It was under his leadership that then-President Barack Obama in 2016 became the first US leader to visit Hiroshima, laying a wreath at the atomic bombing memorial. That same year, Abe himself made a historic trip to Pearl Harbor where he offered “his sincere and everlasting condolences” to the victims of the Japanese attack on the base. It has also joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
With Trump, who immediately withdrew from the TPP and expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of the 50,000 US troops in Japan and the two countries’ economic ties, Abe chose to develop a more personal bond; with rounds of golf, dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, and regular phone calls.
En 2019, Sheila Smith, senior fellow au Council for Foreign Relations Washington DC, noted an “unprecedented level of communication” between Japanese and American leaders. That same year, Trump became the first world leader to meet the new Japanese Emperor Naruhito.
Abe’s diplomacy also extended to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the aim of resolving the long-standing dispute over the islands known as the Northern Territories – just north of Hokkaido – which were eventually absorbed. by the Kuril Islands as part of the Soviet Union. of World War II.
“He wanted to be the one who resolved this dispute and enabled a peace treaty between Russia and Japan,” Karsten said. “He tried everything. Nothing worked. Putin just doesn’t need Abe. ”
At times, Abe’s efforts were undermined by her own conservative instincts about the story.
A 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the war dead, including a number of Class A war criminals, shocked not only China, but also South Korea.
And although Abe avoided future visits – choosing to send offerings instead – ties with Seoul were further damaged late last year by a dispute over forced labor during 35 years of occupation. from the Korean Peninsula through Japan.
His plan to rewrite the constitution, however, has not progressed despite his declared commitment.
“There is no popular support for this,” said Jeff Kingston, professor and expert on Japanese politics at Temple University in Tokyo. “The constitutional review is one-digit on the list of things people think is important to them. “
No more bad economic news
“Abenomics” – a signature strategy of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform designed to revive the long-struggling country’s economy – also appears to have had little impact despite early breakthroughs.
“GDP growth is now lower than when he took office,” Kingston said.
Growth was stable last year, down from 1% when Abe took office, and structural immigration and work-life balance reforms meant to help address the challenges of an aging population , have made little progress.
Japan was in a recession even before COVID-19 hit, and now people are staying at home and spending even less – the economy has shrunk to a record high in the second quarter. Japan also cannot hope for an increase in the number of tourists due to the Summer Olympics, which have been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.
“There’s a lot more bad news to come,” Kingston added.
Like so many others, the challenge of reviving the economy will fall on whoever follows Abe.
But experts believe Abe’s tenure should not be seen as a failure.
Changes in policymaking, even if they are not the type of initiative that grab the headlines, will have a lasting effect,
“That machinery will be there after he leaves,” said Tobias Harris, author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, a biography on Abe to be published later this year.
“This model of exercised power will be there; it is a real heritage. ”
And longevity itself, in a country where post-war prime ministers often only lasted a year or two, has also been a boon.
“Abe provided the kind of continuity and predictability that Japan hadn’t seen in a long time,” Harris added.
As Japan faces geopolitical uncertainty and growing domestic challenges, its successors might not be so lucky.