Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has abruptly announced his resignation on ‘health grounds.’ He began his second term in office in December 2012 and held the post for 2,803 straight days as of Friday — topping by five days his great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who served from November 1964 to July 1972. Given Abe’s status as Japan’s longest-serving leader in modern history, his retirement will surely mark the end of an era. At the press conference, Abe expressed regret that he could not accomplish three key political goals: revising the constitution, rescuing abducted Japanese citizens in North Korea, and returning the Russian-held Northern Territories to Japan. In my view, he spoke his mind honestly. It seems that even Abenomics was just a tool for him to amend the constitution, his ultimate goal. Looking at Asia, as paradoxical as it sounds, the fact that Abe was famously not especially pro-China or pro-Korea meant that he could have made bigger strides in improving ties with Beijing and Seoul. In other words, he had a lot of room for compromise with those governments. A Korean journalist once told me, “South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Abe are the best combination, because they are poles apart.” Unfortunately, the two poles never moved closer together. In evaluating Abe’s performance, I am reminded of this aphorism by American theologian and author James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. A politician looks for the success of his party; a statesman for that of his country. The statesman wishes to steer, while the politician is satisfied to drift.” Abe won six national elections, and presided over the country’s accumulation of more than 1 quadrillion yen in public debt — equivalent to more than twice Japan’s gross domestic product. His name will be remembered by our next generation for his Abenomics economic policy.
Abe had said he will stay on as prime minister until his successor is chosen. His Liberal Democratic Party is expected to hold a party presidential election by the end of September, with Diet lawmakers and three representatives from each of the 47 local chapters voting, but not rank-and-file party members.
With Abe’s conservative LDP and Komeito holding a strong majority in the more powerful Lower House, whoever becomes the next LDP president will almost certainly become prime minister.
Abe’s resignation will bring an end to his second tenure as prime minister, a period of political stability that lasted nearly eight years and saw him form a close personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump that few other world leaders enjoyed. But he also leaves behind unfinished business, and a controversial legacy, in East Asia.
Abe had just taken over the mantle as having the nation’s longest uninterrupted term as prime minister. But his health came under intense scrutiny after a checkup at Keio University Hospital in Tokyo on Aug. 17. He then returned for a follow-up exam on Monday, his 2,799th day in office during his current tenure and the day Abe said he made the decision to step aside. Counting his first tenure, he passed Taro Katsura to become the longest-serving prime minister last year.
During an evening news conference, Abe revealed that his chronic ulcerative colitis, which led to his resignation during his first term, was found to have relapsed at the beginning of August. He had been feeling ill since mid-July.
Even though he has begun to take new medication, constant treatment will be required, Abe said.
“With the illness and treatment, and with my strength not the best, I can’t allow myself to risk making incorrect political decisions, thus failing to produce results,” Abe said. “I intend to resign as prime minister.”
The prime minister, however, said he will continue his political career as a lawmaker, denying that he will retire from politics.