Japan's longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, announced in a press conference Thursday that he is stepping down because of poor health.
Abe, 65, has been in office since 2012. He also served as prime minister for one year beginning in 2006, also citing health as the reason for his resignation. Abe's longevity is noteworthy in a country that sees frequent turnover in its leadership.
The prime minister has suffered bouts of ulcerative colitis, a debilitating inflammatory bowel disease, for years. Abe made two hospital visits in the past week leading to speculation he would step down.
Abe said his health began to decline last month and he was concerned his illness would affect his judgment.
Abe is considered a comparatively successful manager of relations with the U.S., and in particular with President Trump. Abe put his personal relationship with Trump on display during a presidential visit to Tokyo last year, feting him with steak, burgers, golf and a sumo wrestling match.
He was able to keep trade frictions with the U.S. from blowing up, as he put together a trade deal that largely gave Washington the treatment it would have received under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era trade agreement that Trump rejected.
Abe failed to achieve his most cherished political goal, and that of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party: to revise Japan's pacifist, post-World War II constitution. His proposed revisions would strengthen the government's emergency powers, while downplaying the role of human rights. Abe felt the political values imposed by the U.S.-imposed constitution were alien to some of Japan's traditions, such as reverence for the emperor.
Abe was, however, successful in passing legislation in 2015 that allows Japan's military to expand its operations overseas in support of allies, including the U.S.
Most Japanese have been dissatisfied with Abe's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, feeling he moved too slowly by waiting until April to impose a state of emergency mostly out of concerns about the economy. These sentiments lowered his approval rating to just under 30%.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Japan's prime minister is doing something truly rare - giving up power when he does not absolutely have to. To grasp just how unusual this is, consider some news from elsewhere. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has been in power 20 years and is changing his country's laws to stay longer. China's president dropped a convention of two terms in office so that he could stay longer. In the United States, the Constitution limits President Trump to two terms at most, but he repeatedly says he should have more. It's one of his lines for owning the libs.
Japan's Shinzo Abe leads a party that is still in power. They have not lost an election. But through an interpreter, he says he is leaving due to poor health.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) And so long as I'm not - no longer be able to meet the expectation, the mandate of the people of Japan, I have decided that I should not stay or remain in the position as a prime minister anymore.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has covered East Asia for years and is on the line from Seoul.
Hey there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: When he talks about being unable to meet expectations, what's he talking about?
KUHN: Well, he's talking about this chronic inflammatory bowel disease, which ended a previous term as prime minister in 2007. He had earlier said this week that he wanted to manage this condition and keep working. But he said at a press conference today that he found out in June that he had had a relapse. And reporters who've been covering him for a long time say he just looked exhausted. And he said at the presser that he didn't want it to affect his political judgment.
He said he thought his health would hold out until they choose a new prime minister, and so there's probably going to be an election to decide that. But it's also important to remember that, before Prime Minister Abe, they had a spate of prime ministers who lasted only about a year, so he did provide some measure of stability.
INSKEEP: Yeah, eight years in office in this particular stretch of his prime ministership. What will the effect be of his departure on relations with the United States?
KUHN: Well, Shinzo Abe put this relationship he had with President Trump on display. President Trump visited Japan last year, and Shinzo Abe took him to a sumo wrestling match, a golf game, steaks and burgers - all this to show what a good buddy he was with Trump. And this personal rapport helped them to weather some difficult times in the alliance. There've been a lot of trade frictions. He managed to get out of that without them blowing up.
And also, there is pressure from the Trump administration for Japan to pay more for the American troop presence in Japan. So if Abe's successor is to be a strong alliance manager and to have a good rapport with the U.S. president, they're going to have to build it from scratch because there's no one like that on the horizon.
INSKEEP: I want people to know you fly in and out of Japan. You're there all the time. You have been for many years. How has Japan changed during eight years of Abe's leadership?
KUHN: Well, one of the things he wanted to do was to fix the two decades - two-plus decades of economic stagnation that Japan's been in. And sure enough, he presided over a long period of economic growth, but very weak growth. A lot of the gains of this growth went to corporations and shareholders and not wage earners. And now even that growth has been ended by COVID.
The other thing is that, you know, Abe is basically a conservative nationalist, and he felt the arrangement imposed on Japan after World War II by the U.S. was keeping it down. So his goal was to amend the constitution to give the government more power, and he failed to do that. And he never got the Japanese public behind him on it.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
KUHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.