Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during his press conference in Tokyo on Aug. 28. He is resigning over health problems in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership contest in the world's third-largest economy. (Photo: AFP)
Japan's longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has resigned, citing ill health.
Abe said his health had been declining and that he did not want the illness to hit important policy-making decisions.
"I have decided to step down from the post of prime minister," the 65-year-old said at a press conference on Aug. 28.
The ailing prime minister has not made any public appearances since June and has been undergoing treatment for a flare-up of ulcerative colitis and a chronic intestinal disease, among other things.
Since taking power, Abe has effected unprecedented monetary easing and a flexible fiscal policy to revive the economy with an approach that earned the sobriquet of “Abenomics.”
On the economic front, the premier was such a success that there was hardly any open dissent in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party during his tenure, which started in 2012.
He addressed Japan’s low inflation problem, lack of worker productivity and the challenges of an aging population.
Ill health has long troubled Abe, who is being treated by Keio University Hospital in Tokyo. He previously quit as premier after a chronic ailment in 2007.
Due to the transparency policy for political office holders in Japan, Abe’s chronic colitis is not a new issue.
On Aug. 24, Abe marked his 2,799th straight day as prime minister of the third-largest economy in the world. He surpassed an earlier record by his great-uncle, Sato Eisaku.
He enjoyed a personal bond with US President Donald Trump and maintains cordial ties with China, Japan’s biggest trading partner. That is why his resignation has sparked a wave of concern in international media.
This year Abe has been criticized for his plan to raise prosecutors’ retirement age, while his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been termed too slow.
A poll by Nikkei TV in May stated that 55 percent of respondents did not agree with Abe’s handling of Covid-19. As of Aug. 27, Japan had recorded 63,822 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 1,209 deaths.
Abe and the Church
The Catholic Church, whose followers represent less than half a percent of Japan’s population, has opposed the Abe government many times.
The Church crossed swords with Abe over his plan to restart the country's nuclear power generation capability despite the long-lasting effects of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, considered the most severe nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
Abe's attempt to revise Japan's post-war pacifist constitution also earned the ire of the Church.
The constitution, enacted in 1947, states that the Japanese people "forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
In a historic shift in 2014, Abe allowed Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since the Second World War.
When Abe pushed through 2015 legislation allowing the Japanese military to take part in foreign conflict, the Church wrote a public statement to the prime minister.
Already a race is on to replace Abe. Current finance minister Taro Aso, 79, has been a core member of Abe's cabinet. He also holds the post of deputy prime minister.
Another contender is Higeru Ishiba, an ex-defense minister who has also handled portfolios for agriculture and the local economy.
Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida is also seen as someone who could step into Abe’s shoes.