I hope this finds you and yours safe and healthy during this pandemic.
On August 28, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he would step down because of health issues related to ulcerative colitis. It was a decision which came as a tremendous shock even to those who had closely worked with him within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Concerns about Abe’s health condition were growing due to multiple visits to Keio University Hospital over the last few weeks. In addition, he did not take his usual summer vacation at his Lake Kawaguchi home in Yamanashi. He even spent Monday, August 24, when he became the longest serving prime minister in Japan, at the hospital for further tests and IV injections. In the end, Abe resigned saying “If I can’t discharge my responsibility to the people of this country with confidence, I should not continue as prime minister.”
Being prime minister for 7 years and 8 months is not an easy task, to say the least. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to his dedication to the U.S.-Japan relationship and support for our activities such as his annual meeting with the Congressional Study Group on Japan, which is co-sponsored by the Association of Former Members of Congress. Despite his very busy schedule, in February 2020 Abe spent 45 minutes with the delegates led by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) discussing a wide range of diplomatic and security issues. In addition, Abe kindly delivered a keynote speech at Sasakawa USA’s Security Forum in 2015.
At his resignation press conference, Abe said “It is gut wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals.” He mentioned Japanese abductees by North Korea, a peace treaty with Russia, and constitutional reforms as examples of his unrealized political agendas.
While there may be other political agendas that Abe would have liked to finish, such as a successful Tokyo Olympics next summer, the second Abe Administration is largely a successful one because it gave Japanese people a renewed sense of confidence in a very uncertain world. Indeed, in this regard, Abe has set a very high bar for his successor, whoever that may be.
First, Abe brought long-term stability to Japanese political leadership. One of the major weaknesses of Japanese politics has been the briefness of prime ministers in office. Abe has set mid to long-term expectations and goals for Japan by his longevity in office.
Second, Abe introduced an economic policy, consisting of “three arrows,” i.e., monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms. While the policy labeled “Abenomics” did not revive the economy enough to achieve the two percent inflation target, both private corporate sector activities and employment situations have improved.
Third, Abe firmly established the importance of national security in Japan’s national political discourse. Abe passed a major security legislation, which could allow Japan’s Self Defense Force to engage in action overseas by exercising Japan’s right to collective self-defense. The changes the new legislation has brought about have certainly bolstered the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Fourth, Abe held a strong leadership role in the international community, which was rarely seen before by a prime minister of Japan. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, Abe took over the leadership position and successfully brought the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership to fruition.
Lastly, Abe stressed the importance of universal values, such as freedom, democracy, and rule of law. He effectively used universal values to establish Japan as a respected member of the G7 and to introduce the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision concept.
Several LDP politicians, who aspire to succeed Abe, have begun jockeying for the position. According to the LDP rules, under normal circumstances, an open LDP election will be held to select the next leader. Half of the voting power is held by the LDP’s more than one million members and the other half is held by LDP law makers. Under emergency situations a faster process exists, which restricts voting to LDP law makers and three representatives from each of the 47 prefectures.
Which route the LDP leadership will take has much bearing on who Abe’s successor will be. Some politicians are stronger amongst general members, while some are stronger with their fellow law makers. For example, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba put up a decent fight in the party leadership election in 2018 by winning 44.6% of votes cast by the general members at the prefectural level. In the end however, he could not win the leadership position due to the lack of support among fellow law makers.
Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP’s influential Secretary General, seems likely to take the emergency option to ensure a quick and smooth transition to a law maker of the party’s choice, preventing a challenge from a maverick like Ishiba who relies on the rank and file party members.
One thing is clear. The period of long stability under Abe has suddenly ended and Japanese politics is in unknown territory.