Shinzo Abe: Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

Shinzo Abe has broken records as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, championing ambitious economic reforms and forging diplomatic ties while dodging nepotism scandals and battling chronic health problems.

He remained a key voice in politics even after resigning for a second time because of ill health, and was fighting for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party when he was assassinated on July 8.

On Tuesday, a state funeral will honor the former leader, who was shot dead by a gunman outraged by the Unification Church, a religious group with which Abe had ties.

When Abe first became prime minister in 2006, he was a sprightly 52, the youngest person to hold the post in the post-war period.

He was seen as a symbol of change and youth, but he also brought with him the pedigree of a third-generation politician nurtured from birth by an elite, conservative family.

Abe’s first year in office was turbulent, riddled with scandal and discord, and crowned with an abrupt resignation.

After initially suggesting he was stepping down for political reasons, he admitted he was suffering from a condition that was later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition.

– abenomics –

The debilitating condition required months of treatment but was eventually overcome, Abe said, with the help of new drugs.

He ran again, and Japan’s revolving door to premiership brought him back to office in 2012, ending a turbulent period when leaders were changed, sometimes once a year.

With Japan still reeling from the 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster — and a brief opposition government lashed out over flip-flops and incompetence — Abe offered what appeared to be a safe pair of hands.

And he had a plan: Abenomics.

The plan to revive Japan’s economy — the world’s third-biggest but stagnant for more than two decades — included huge government spending, monetary easing and cutting red tape.

Abe also sought to boost the country’s falling birth rate by making the workplace kinder to parents, especially mothers.

He promised to “create a society where women shine” and pushed through controversial consumption tax hikes to fund kindergartens and fill gaps in Japan’s overburdened social security system.

Although there has been some progress in reform, the economy’s major structural problems remain.

Deflation proved persistent and the country was already in recession before the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020.

Abe’s star continued to wane during the pandemic, and his response has been criticized as confused and slow, lowering his approval ratings to some of the lowest of his tenure.

– Political Storms –

On the international stage, Abe has taken a hard line on North Korea but has sought a peacemaking role between the United States and Iran.

He prioritized a close personal relationship with Donald Trump to protect Japan’s key alliance from the then-US president’s “America First” mantra, and sought to mend relations with Russia and China.

The results were mixed. Trump was still trying to make Japan pay more for US troops stationed in the country, while a deal with Russia over disputed northern islands remained elusive and a planned state visit by China’s Xi Jinping fell by the wayside.

Abe also took a hawkish stance on South Korea over unresolved war disputes and continued to circulate plans to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Throughout his tenure, he weathered political storms, including accusations of nepotism, which hurt his approval ratings but did little to dent his power, thanks in part to the weakness of the opposition.

Abe was due to stay until the end of 2021, giving him a chance to see one final event in his historic tenure – the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

But in a shock announcement, he resigned in August 2020, with a recurrence of ulcerative colitis also ending his second term.