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What You Need to Know About Abe’s Resignation

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he's stepping down. Why, what does this mean, and who's up for the job?

By 5 min read

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left the country in shock when he announced his resignation from office on Fri, Aug. 28. While some of his economic policies, disdainfully referred to as “Abenomics,” were often seen as controversial and led to low approval ratings, the move to step down has left everyone with a lot of questions.

Why is Abe stepping down?

Last week on Friday Abe held a press conference in which he cited his current battle with ulcerative colitis as the main reason for his resignation. During his address to the public, he said “it is gut-wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals,” referencing a number of issues he was tackling. He expressed regret over his failure to resolve territorial disputes with Russia, issues of Japanese abducted by North Korea, and a revision of Japan’s constitution.

“Faced with the illness and treatment, as well as the pain of lacking physical strength… 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,” he said during the conference. Abe’s official term was scheduled to end in September 2021.

During his address to the public, he said ‘it is gut-wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals…’

During the conference, no successor was named. However, Abe did say that he’d stay in the role of prime minister until his successor is chosen. It’s expected that his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will hold a party presidential election by the end of September, where diet lawmakers and three representatives from each of the 47 local chapters will vote, but the wider community of the party’s rank-and-file party members will not.

Criticism over the resignation

Abe was heavily criticized for his “two-mask” policy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some commentators were quick to suggest that blunders in how the COVID-19 pandemic has been handled, including the Go To Travel Campaign and Abe-no-mask policy, could have played a role in his decision. Also, it’s fair to say 2020 has been a bit of a mess for the leader politically. With the strong push against his goal to formally rewrite the pacifist constitution facing resistance, the conflicts with fellow LDP member Shigeru Ishiba, and his dip in popularity numbers also giving some people reason for speculation, Abe and his followers are staying firm, insisting it’s purely a health concern.

Ulcerative colitis is a condition the leader had since he was a teenager, and it’s not the first time the condition has impacted his career. In 2006, after becoming Japan’s youngest prime minister at the age of 52, he had to step down from the role, which he regained six years later.

But in more recent times, the condition has seen him make two hospital visits in the past two weeks in August. He’s currently seeking treatment, which he has been doing during his tenure as prime minister, but the new treatment he’s on requires IV injections. He said there had been some improvement, but he can’t guarantee that this new treatment will cure his condition, so it’s better to leave now before the condition worsens.

A brief overview of Abe’s career

Abe is officially Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, which is no mean feat in a nation that’s long dealt with short-term running PMs. Abe has never been known for being particularly charismatic, or an enthralling public speaker, but it seemed for many that he was born for the top job.

He’s a political “blue blood,” a man who hails from a line of politicians, and was groomed to follow his grandfather’s footsteps, the former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. He’s also the nation’s longest-serving PM officially by consecutive days in office, having beat out his great uncle Eisaku Sato. The latter clocked 2,798 days in the role between 1964 to 1972.

In 2006 he made his mark as the nation’s youngest leader, but he stepped down due to cited reasons being his ulcerative colitis. In 2012 he returned to office, riding on a wave of economic prioritization and nationalist rhetoric.

One of his clearly acknowledged and most controversial goals was to formally rewrite the pacifist constitution, which was put into place following Japan’s defeat during World War II.

One of Abe’s key economic platforms was his campaign to empower women. He believed that increasing female participation in the workforce would help counterbalance a declining and aging population. However, this agenda, which included the plans to raise the proportion of women in management and government drastically, was slow to move and never came to fruition.

One of his clearly acknowledged and most controversial goals was to formally rewrite the pacifist constitution, which was put into place following Japan’s defeat during World War II. Like his grandfather, Abe and his nationalistic allies saw the U.S.-drafted constitution as a humiliating legacy of the country’s WWII defeat. Although he did try to normalize a military presence in Japan by pushing through legislation allowing overseas combat missions alongside allies under the guise of “collective self-defense,” he ultimately failed.

During this time, he increased patriotic education at schools, offered Japan a sense of political stability, and raised Japan’s international profile globally, thanks in no small part to his ability to form a close relationship with US President Trump.

Who’s in the race for the PM position?

While nothing has been set in stone just yet, there are several options being considered. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has emerged as the top contender for the position, being Abe’s “right-hand man” for eight years.

Other major contenders are party policy chief Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister many consider Abe’s personal choice for successor, and Abe’s (speculated) least preferred candidate Shigeru Ishiba, who while popular with the public, isn’t as loved within the LDP.

Social-media-savvy current defense minister Taro Kono could be up for the gig but is considered a long shot. Many assumed that finance minister Taro Aso would take the role were anything to happen to Abe, but he has announced he will not stand. Seiko Noda, a former cabinet minister, is expected to stand, but her chances are thought to be slim.

A decision on how to hold the election is expected to happen this first week of September, with a predicted election to take place by September 15.

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