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Inside Japanese politics

A legacy slipping away: Why Shinzo Abe stepped down

Japan's longest-serving PM seeks to avoid leaving political vacuum

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on Aug. 28. He said his illness prevented him from giving sufficient attention to his duties.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- "I couldn't shake that anxious feeling that I should be doing a little more," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference on Friday when he announced his resignation due to a flare up of a severe digestive ailment that has plagued him through his life. With only a little more than a year to go before his term expired as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which would also spell the end of his tenure as prime minister, what exactly was the nature of this anxious feeling that led to his premature resignation?

Abe made the decision to resign on his own Monday after a second medical exam this month at Keio University Hospital in Tokyo showed he lost almost 10 kilograms since the previous exam, Nikkei learned according to conversations with high-ranking officials. Abe first started noticing symptoms around June. "There are signs of recurrent disease," one of his doctors said in confidence after a June 13 physical.

Ulcerative colitis is aggravated by stress. Just before the recurrence, the prime minister was under great pressure to come up with measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak. He was under heavy criticism and forced to withdraw his plan for a cash handout to qualifying households. And his distribution of two cloth masks to households and a video posted of him relaxing at home to discourage people from going out were widely mocked.

The approval rating of Abe's government has fallen to the lowest level since his second stint as prime minister began in December 2012. "Why haven't we been able to earn the public's support even though we have managed to control the spread of infection better than other developed countries?" he said.

On the evening of June 19, Abe had two-and-a-half-hour dinner at a hotel in Tokyo with Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and Akira Amari, who chairs the LDP's powerful tax panel. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was the first time in three months that the quartet had met for a dinner meeting

"I thought that these four people should have a dinner," Abe said with a smile.

Aso, Suga and Amari are Abe's most trusted allies. After ending his first stint as prime minister in September 2007 due to illness, they stood by Abe and supported his return to the top job in Japanese politics.

With Abe's record-long tenure as prime minister set to end in just about a year, the dinner meeting was seen as the starting gun to laying the groundwork for a "post-Abe" era, but the prime minister's body and spirit were both experiencing intensifying pain.

As July began, the number of Japanese people infected with the coronavirus began to increase again, mainly in Tokyo. At daily meetings held at the prime minister's office, attendees noted the prime minister was giving fewer clear directives and that his pallor was darkening. "It doesn't seem as if he is taking in what we are explaining," bureaucrats began to say.

By the end of July, Abe was not involved in preparing the autumn's extraordinary Diet session, cabinet reshuffle, and party official appointments.

In his place, Suga came to the fore, spearheading initiatives such as the "Go To Travel" program to boost domestic tourism, an industry that had been hit hard by the pandemic. Some lawmakers were uncomfortable with the prime minister gradually moving away from the center of policymaking.

For a prime minister who had been saying, "I have one year left, so I want to do my best," he was beset with anxiety that the coronavirus was preventing him from establishing his long-term legacy. Long-cherished goals of amending the constitution and for comprehensive settlements of postwar diplomatic issues with Russia and North Korea now seemed out of reach.

The Tokyo Olympics were the culmination of much hard work, but now it was uncertain when -- or if -- they would ever open.

"An administration is over when it loses sight of its goal," Aso had habitually warned, and this was becoming a reality.

Abe had one more worry: Who would he handover to?

He had once seen Fumio Kishida, the chair of the LDP's powerful Policy Research Council, as the leading candidate. But Kishida, the former foreign minister, had failed to show leadership in formulating policy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and lost support within the party.

The terms for current Lower House members expire in October 2021. An election must be held by then. Abe realized that the closer the party came to an election, the more likely his arch rival Shigeru Ishiba -- riding high in opinion polls -- would be the popular choice to lead the troops into battle.

The prime minister holds a special grudge toward Ishiba, the former defense minister and former LDP secretary-general. When the Abe-led LDP lost the 2007 Upper House election, during his first stint as prime minister, it was Ishiba who rallied a movement within the party to remove Abe from power.

"Who is Ishiba recently dining with?" Abe would sometimes ask his aides. "I can't step down under these circumstances, even if I wanted to," he was also heard saying.

If Abe could position the candidate of his choice in a key position in the upcoming autumn cabinet reshuffle and top party leadership posts, it would be a de facto anointment of a successor, the thinking went. It would have been the most important selection of personnel in his near-eight year rule, but obviously he would not be able to put pen on paper without deciding on a successor first.

His trusted ally Aso had some advice. "Rest well before you think of personnel moves. We don't want you to make decisions when you have no energy," he said in the prime minister's office on Aug. 7 after a cabinet meeting. Abe was clearly tormented in the eyes of the near-octogenarian finance minister.

By then, Abe had been told by his doctor about the resurgence of his illness and had begun to take medicine. And he wasn't necessarily keeping it a secret.

"This illness doesn't have a cure. I have only been controlling it over the years," he told a friend recently.

The checkup at Keio University Hospital on Aug. 17 took more than seven hours.

Six days later, on the night he matched his uncle Eisaku Sato as the longest continuous serving prime minister in Japanese history, Abe had a sense of accomplishment in his voice.

"Looking back, it feels pretty long," he said. "It took six victories in national elections to reach here."

Abe made his decision to resign after seeing the doctor on Monday. He quietly told a handful of aides.

"This job can't be done without a healthy body. I can't make wrong political judgments due to my health," he said, and instructed them to prepare for the necessary procedures going ahead.

When he stepped down the first time in 2007, Abe was admitted to hospital immediately after. The abrupt resignation left the country leaderless and he was criticized for not acting until the very last minute.

"I handled it poorly 13 years ago. This time I want to decide early, so as not to create a political vacuum," he told an aide.

On Friday, in the hours before the 5 p.m. news conference, Abe told his decision to Aso, went to the LDP headquarters to inform Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and also conveyed it to Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of coalition partner Komeito, in the Diet building.

It was an attempt at due process, to clearly differentiate from last time.

The 65-year-old leader has lately been reading "Napoleon," a three-volume book by Kenichi Sato about Napoleon Bonaparte. But after finishing the first two books, he stopped.

"I think I don't need to read volume three," he said. "After this, it's going to be all downhill for Napoleon."

He may have felt a kinship to the 19th century French leader.

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