Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe bowed in apology today as he announced his resignation on health grounds after a record eight years in power.
Abe, 65, revealed he had suffered a relapse of a chronic bowel condition – saying he had ‘lost a lot of my energy and strength’ and would need regular medical treatment that would prevent him from tackling the coronavirus crisis.
‘I have been struggling with my illness and I have to get treatment. Poor health should not lead to wrong political decisions,’ he told a press conference, offering his ‘sincere apology’ for abandoning ship during the pandemic.
Speculation about the PM’s health had been swirling for weeks but reached a peak in recent days after he made two separate trips to hospital.
There were also reports that Abe was vomiting blood – 13 years after his first stint as PM was brought to an end by the same bowel condition.
The announcement brings an end to the longest premiership in Japanese history, in which Abe sought close ties with Donald Trump while trying to revive the economy with his ‘Abenomics’ policies and shake off the legacy of World War II.
However, he was derailed by the coronavirus crisis and a flagging economy while seeing mixed results in foreign policy and failing to rewrite the constitution.
Abe will remain in post until his party chooses a successor.
Abe took three days of holiday this month made an unannounced hospital visit on August 17, staying there for more than seven hours for medical checks.
He made a second visit to the same hospital a week later for additional tests and said at the time that he intended to continue as leader of the world’s third-largest economy.
However, the visits sparked concern about his health, while there were also questions over Abe’s limited public appearances and decision to avoid holding a press conference to address criticism of his handling of Covid-19.
After his recent hospital visits were reported, senior officials from the cabinet and the ruling party said Abe was overworked and badly needed rest.
However, Abe confirmed today that the chronic bowel condition ulcerative colitis had flared up again in recent months.
Abe ended his first term as PM after just a year in the job from 2006 to 2007 due to the bowel condition, which he has suffered since he was a teenager.
He returned to power in 2012 and said he was managing his illness with new medication after months being treated for the condition.
However, he revealed at his press conference today that a regular health check in June had showed signs of a relapse which led to Abe being administered with new drugs.
‘Since the middle of last month my health deteriorated and I’ve lost a lot of my energy and strength,’ he said.
‘Early this month, the recurrence of the ulcerative colitis was confirmed.
‘In addition to the medicine that I’m taking currently, a new drug is going to be administered.
‘This drug has to be administered on a continuous basis so the progress has to be monitored very closely.
‘Now that I am not able to fulfil the mandate from the people with confidence, I have decided that I should no longer occupy the position of the prime minister.
‘I would like to sincerely apologise to the people of Japan for leaving my post with one year left in my term of office, and amid the coronavirus woes, while various policies are still in the process of being implemented,’ he said, bowing deeply.
Abe said his legacy would be for others to decide, but hailed his efforts to bring Barack Obama to Hiroshima as one of his proudest achievements after the 44th US president became the first to visit the site of the atomic bomb attack in 2016.
By contrast, Abe said his inability to bring home Japanese people kidnapped by North Korea was one of his greatest disappointments.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will now elect a successor although the timetable for Abe’s departure is not yet fully clear.
Abe said he would not comment on his potential successors, but said the next premier should continue to work on fighting the coronavirus.
He also urged Japan to ‘fulfil our responsibility as the host country of the Olympics’, which have been postponed to 2021 with doubts persisting over whether they will go ahead then.
The Nikkei stock index temporarily plunged by more than 2.6 per cent on Friday amid ‘panic selling’ as rumours emerged of Abe’s impending departure.
‘It was a big surprise’, said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo.
‘His resignation comes at a time when Japan is facing tough issues, including measures against the coronavirus. There may be political confusion.’
Lawmaker and Abe ally Tomomi Inada said the PM announced his resignation plans at an emergency LDP meeting.
‘I heard his plan. It was sudden and unexpected. I am stunned,’ she said.
Even as recently as Friday morning, the government’s spokesman had appeared to dismiss concerns about Abe’s health and suggested he would stay on.
‘I see him every day and feel that there is no change in his condition,’ spokesman Yoshihide Suga had told reporters at a regular press conference.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson wished Abe well today and said he had ‘achieved great things as PM of Japan’.
‘Under his stewardship the UK-Japan relationship has gone from strength to strength in trade, defence and our cultural links,’ he said. ‘Thank you for all your years of service and I wish you good health.’
Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also paid tribute to Abe’s ‘invaluable contribution’ to Russo-Japanese relations.
Abe this week broke the record for the longest uninterrupted stint in office in Japanese history – ending a sequence of ‘revolving door’ prime ministers which followed his first resignation in 2007.
However, his government has come under heavy pressure over its handling of the coronavirus crisis despite the relatively low numbers of cases and deaths in Japan.
The country was criticised internationally over its handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak, which was an early magnet for infections.
A U-turn on stimulus payments and a much-mocked decision to issue each household with two cloth face masks have dented the PM’s popularity at home.
There was also criticism of Japan’s initial unwillingness to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which are now due for the summer of 2021.
Japan has seen 64,668 coronavirus cases and 1,226 deaths in total.
The PM has also seen his signature ‘Abenomics’ policies come under strain with the country already slumping into recession before the virus arrived.
Abenomics involved vast government spending, massive monetary easing and the cutting of red tape, intended to boost the world’s third-largest economy after decades of stagnation and the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
He also sought to boost the country’s flagging birth rate by making workplaces more friendly to parents, particularly mother.
Last year he pushed through a controversial tax hike intended to help fund free nursery school places for children three and older.
Abenomics helped to support the country’s growth and strengthen Japanese exporters, while billions were spent on modernising infrastructure.
However, economic performance was patchy even before the pandemic with a recession in 2014-15 and a period of falling prices in 2016.
But with Japan’s fragmented opposition so far unable to capitalise on the government’s falling approval ratings, there had been no clamour for Abe to quit.
A political blue-blood whose grandfather and great-uncle both served as Japanese PM, Abe has long sought to make Japan a ‘normal’ and ‘beautiful’ nation with a stronger military.
Aged 52 when he first took office in 2006, he was the youngest PM of the post-war era and the first born after Japan’s surrender in 1945.
He has sought to build a close personal relationship with Donald Trump in a bid to protect Japan’s key alliance, despite the US president’s ‘America First’ mantra.
However, he has failed to achieve his cherished goal to formally rewrite the US-drafted pacifist constitution because of poor public support.
Abe and many of his conservative supporters see the current constitution as a humiliating legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Abe recently appeared in public at 75th anniversary events to mark the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – although he was criticised for making near-identical speeches.
Tokyo has also failed to make progress in resolving the status of northern islands disputed with Russia, and a plan to invite Xi Jinping for a state visit has fallen by the wayside amid growing domestic discontent with Beijing.
Shigeru Ishiba, a hawkish 63-year-old former defence minister, is a favourite next leader in media surveys, although he is less popular within the ruling party.
Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, defence minister Taro Kono, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, and economic revitalisation minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of coronavirus measures, are also tipped as potential successors.
Kishida is rumoured to be Abe’s personal choice, but most of the potential successors are seen as unlikely to break with his policies.