Japan's economic recovery met with challenge as Abe resigns

After a stagnant economy in the 1990s and 2000s, Japan found a semblance of stability and progress under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr. Abe’s resignation because of a health issue leaves many of his goals unrealized and an economy staggering to recover from the pandemic.

Franck Robichon/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Tokyo Aug. 28, 2020. Mr. Abe said on Friday that despite having many projects left to finish, he intends to step down because of a challenging physical condition.

Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said Friday he is stepping down because a chronic health problem has resurfaced. He told reporters that it was “gut wrenching” to leave many of his goals unfinished.

Concerns about his health began this summer and grew this month when he visited a Tokyo hospital two weeks in a row for unspecified health checkups for a condition he has managed since he was a teenager. While there is some improvement, there is no guarantee that it will cure his condition and so he decided to step down after treatment Monday, he said.

“It is gut wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals,” Mr. Abe said Friday, mentioning his failure to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia, and a revision of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.

He said his health problem was under control until earlier this year but was found to have worsened in June when he had an annual checkup.

“I decided I should not stay on as prime minister when I’m no longer capable of living up to the people’s expectations with confidence,” Mr. Abe said at a news conference.

In a country once known for its short-tenured prime ministers, the departure marks the end of an unusual era of stability that saw the Japanese leader strike up strong ties with U.S. President Donald Trump even as Mr. Abe’s ultra-nationalism riled the Koreas and China. While he pulled Japan out of recession, the economy has been battered anew by the coronavirus pandemic, and Mr. Abe has failed to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution because of poor public support.

“The coronavirus’s impact on the economy was a blow to Abe, who was stuck at home and lacking an opportunity to make any achievement or show off his friendship with Trump, and was pushed into a corner,” said Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Although Mr. Abe left many of his political goals unfinished, he continued to bolster Japan’s defense capability to respond to America’s needs. “For those who believe the Japan-U.S. alliance is paramount, that was his major achievement,” Mr. Nakano said.

Mr. Abe is a political blue blood who was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military and bigger role in international affairs.

Mr. Abe, whose term ends in September 2021, is expected to stay on until a new party leader is elected and formally approved by the parliament.

Mr. Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52, but his overly nationalistic first stint ended abruptly a year later because of his health.

In December 2012, Mr. Abe returned to power, prioritizing economic measures over his nationalist agenda. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power, bolstering Japan’s defense role, capability, and its security alliance with the U.S. He also stepped up patriotic education at schools and raised Japan’s international profile.

Mr. Abe on Monday became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister by consecutive days in office, eclipsing the record of Eisaku Sato, his great-uncle, who served 2,798 days from 1964 to 1972.

But his second hospital visit Monday accelerated speculation and political maneuvering toward a post-Abe regime.

After his recent hospital visits were reported, top officials from Mr. Abe’s Cabinet and the ruling party said he was overworked and badly needed rest.

His health concerns came as his support ratings plunged due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its severe impact on the economy, on top of a stream of political scandals, including his own.

There are a slew of politicians eager to replace Mr. Abe.

Shigeru Ishiba, a hawkish former defense minister and Mr. Abe’s archrival, is a favorite next leader in media surveys, though he is less popular within the governing party. A low-key former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Taro Kono, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of coronavirus measures, are widely mentioned in Japanese media as potential successors.

Mr. Abe was often upstaged in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, a former governing party conservative who is seen as a potential prime minister candidate by some. But she would have to first be elected to parliament to be in the running for the top job.

Analysts say no major change of policy is expected from whoever succeeds Mr. Abe, though Japan may return to an era of short-lived leadership.

The end of Mr. Abe’s scandal-laden first stint as prime minister was the beginning of six years of annual leadership change, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability and long-term policies.

When he returned to office in 2012, Mr. Abe vowed to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing, and structural reforms.

Perhaps Mr. Abe’s biggest regret was his inability to fulfill a long-cherished goal of his grandfather and himself to formally rewrite the pacifist constitution. Mr. Abe and his ultra-conservative supporters see the U.S.-drafted constitution as a humiliating legacy of Japan’s World War II defeat.

He was also unable to achieve his goal of settling several unfinished wartime legacies, including normalizing ties with North Korea, settling island disputes with neighbors, and signing a peace treaty with Russia formally ending their hostilities in World War II.

Mr. Abe said he will focus on his treatment for now and “continue his political activity and support a new administration as a lawmaker.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.