Abe Shinzo Retires After Eventful Career as Japan’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers his policy speech at the lower house of the parliament on January 20, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. The Japanese Diet convened a 150-day ordinary session today. (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, 65, officially became his country’s longest-serving prime minister on Monday.

He announced on Friday that he will resign due to health concerns, capping a remarkable career that left three of his greatest ambitions unfulfilled: Revising the Japanese constitution to allow more initiative in national defense, returning Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea, and officially wrapping up World War II by securing a peace treaty with Russia.

Abe’s career might not be completely over, since he said on Friday that he feels his struggle with ulcerative colitis made it necessary for him to resign as prime minister a year before he was scheduled to leave the office, but he plans to run for a seat in the Japanese parliament next year.

Nicknamed “The Prince” because he comes from a political dynasty that includes former foreign and prime ministers, Abe graduated from Seikei University in 1977 and worked for Kobe Steel, Japan’s top steel manufacturer, until he entered the political arena as an assistant to the minister of foreign affairs in 1982. 

Abe won his first elected office as a legislator from Yamaguchi prefecture in 1993 and held a number of positions within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He joined the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as chief cabinet secretary in 2005.

Abe became the 21st president of the LDP, and the 90th prime minister of Japan, in September 2006 and resigned exactly one year later, after his party suffered huge losses in legislative elections and Abe suffered increasing complications from inflammatory bowel disease, an ailment he said he has struggled with since high school. 

Abe has said that only the advent of new medicines in 2009 allowed him to restore his health and return to politics. He became prime minister again in 2012 at the head of a resurgent LDP and has held the office ever since. The LDP changed its rules in 2017 to let him serve a third term as its president, and therefore remain prime minister, and it was ready to change them again so he could serve a fourth term, but Abe ruled that out in March 2019 and said he would leave office in 2021.

Abe’s return to the top office was followed by the launch of “Abenomics,” his ambitious program to increase Japan’s gross domestic product while restraining inflation. Abe described his program as “three arrows” in a quiver: fiscal stimulus, monetary policy, and structural reforms, including corporate tax cuts, regulatory relief, and a much-touted plan to bring more Japanese women into the workforce. 

The reform arrow was arguably the one that hit its target closest to the bullseye. The rest of the Abenomics platform produced mixed results until recently, when it seemed the Japanese economy was finally starting to take off and then the coronavirus struck.

Like most non-dictatorial world leaders, Abe got mixed reviews for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including some jeers for encouraging tourism in a time of disease panic and distributing inadequate protective face masks that were nicknamed “Abenomasks.” His approval ratings currently stand at their lowest point during his eight-year term, largely due to the coronavirus and a faltering economy. 

In the foreign policy arena, Abe was most renowned, and sometimes most reviled, for his hawkish stance on national defense and his desire to amend the pacifist constitution. Abe argued that Japan should be able to act in “collective defense” with Japan’s allies to neutralize threats beyond the country’s borders, including terrorists, the psychotic dictatorship in North Korea, and perhaps an increasingly aggressive China.

Pacifism has become very deeply ingrained in Japanese society since World War II, so the changes Abe wished to make were highly controversial. There were fistfights over pacifism in parliament. Prime Minister Abe never got the changes he wanted.

Abe found himself embroiled in a bitter dispute with South Korea over the lingering issues of conscripted labor and South Korean “comfort women” abused by Imperial Japan during its occupation, and he was unable to settle Japan’s other unfinished World War II business with Russia, which revolves around an intractable territorial dispute.

On the domestic front, Abe struggled with corruption and influence scandals, particularly a controversial land deal involving his wife that prompted his old mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, to call for Abe’s resignation in April. Just when Abe thought he might have put the long-simmering controversy behind him, a former government official brought it back into the headlines by committing suicide. Even the company that gave Abe his big break in business, Kobe Steel, ended up in a controversy during his term, raising criticism that the LDP and Abenomics have been too indulgent to large, well-connected firms.

Abe was credited with raising Japan’s profile on the world stage, developing strong trading relationships with other Pacific Rim nations, significantly upgrading Japan’s defenses even though he never got the constitutional amendments he wanted, and improving Japan’s relationship with China.

He became one of the closest world leaders to U.S. President Donald Trump, nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. It can be difficult to judge such things among the pressure and illusions of global statecraft, but Trump and Abe seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Under the previous U.S. administration, Abe was credited with arranging President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the first time a sitting U.S. president paid a visit to the city destroyed by a nuclear bomb in World War II.

Abe is generally lauded for bringing stability to Japan, both in domestic politics and international relations. His long tenure as prime minister came after a string of predecessors who rarely lasted more than a year. He was able to bring the economy out of a recession, even if the subsequent performance of Abenomics was often disappointing, and Abe may yet have the last word on economic reform, since the coronavirus is prodding many other nations to adopt platforms similar to his. With the obvious exception of South Korea, he generally did a good job of strengthening Japan’s crucial alliances and trade partnerships.

His departure may bring a period of unwelcome political instability as successors jockey for position. Abe declined to endorse anyone to replace him, although the inside word is that he favors his party policy chief, Fumio Kishida. 

The LDP looks to remain dominant against a divided opposition. The top advisers and close allies who would normally be logical choices to take up his mantle, like Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Taro Aso, have suffered from declining approval ratings as Abe himself became unpopular. Kishida might prove to be a tough sell to Japanese voters because he is associated with the lackluster coronavirus response. Waiting in the wings is former LDP chief Shigeru Ishiba, an old adversary of Abe’s who has been building support from both the public and LDP lawmakers. A power struggle appears likely, bringing Abe Shinzo’s eight years of stability to an end.

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