TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced at an Aug. 28 news conference that he has decided to step down from his post in the middle of a record-long tenure. The move follows repeated hospital visits by the prime minister amid concerns about his health.
Aides had pointed out Abe's fatigue amid Japan's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The premier visited Tokyo's Keio University Hospital on Aug. 17 and again on Aug. 24, and it had been pointed out that his health was unstable. Abe has ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease.
"A relapse of my ulcerative colitis was confirmed in early August. While I get treated for my illness and my physical strength is not in top shape, there mustn't be a situation where I make an error on important political decisions and fail to deliver results. I decided to step down as prime minister," he said.
After his first administration suffered a major defeat in the July 2007 House of Councillors election, his health worsened, and he stepped down after about a year in office. The prime minister's current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is due to end in September 2021, meaning he will be leaving early for the second time.
Abe has served as prime minister since December 2012, following his first stint from 2006 to 2007, and on Aug. 24 he marked his 2,799th consecutive day in office, surpassing his great uncle Eisaku Sato (1901-1975) to become Japan's longest serving prime minister by the number of uninterrupted days in the post. Including his term in 2006 and 2007, he eclipsed the 2,886 combined days of former prime minister Taro Katsura (1848-1913) to become Japan's longest serving prime minister overall in November 2019. Public support for his administration had languished recently as it wavered over its response to the pandemic.
Abe's two recent trips to Keio University Hospital totaled over 11 hours. On Aug. 19, he told reporters that he had received a checkup to help him do his best to manage his health, and on Aug. 24 he said he received a detailed explanation about the previous week's tests and an additional checkup. However, some in the government and ruling coalition believed that Abe was going to hospital because of his ulcerative colitis.
As the Japanese government struggled to deal with the novel coronavirus, Abe worked for 147 consecutive days, from Jan. 26 to June 20. After this there were days when he also worked on weekends, and those close to him expressed concerns that he was visibly tired. Figures including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, and LDP tax policy chief Akira Amari had suggested that Abe take time to rest, but the premier was resolved to keep working to "spearhead" Japan's coronavirus response.
Once Abe resigns, the next focal point is who will take over as prime minister. The LDP is set to elect its next president in a leadership race to be called shortly. Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, now chairman of the LDP's Policy Research Council, and former party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba have both expressed willingness to throw their hats in the ring. Some within the LDP are also rallying around Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Defense Minister Taro Kono, and others.
Prime Minister Abe is the second son of the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe and the grandson of the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. After his father Shintaro passed away, Shinzo Abe was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993 after running in the then Yamaguchi No. 1 constituency. He is in his ninth term in the chamber.
In 2003, Abe was appointed LDP secretary-general during then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's administration and took up the post of chief Cabinet secretary two years later. Abe eventually became prime minister in September 2006 at age 52, upon Koizumi's resignation. However, Abe stepped down due to ill health after the LDP suffered a major setback in the 2007 House of Councillors election.
Abe returned to the LDP presidency in September 2012, when the party was still in the opposition, and returned to power after the party clinched a lower house majority in the general election that December. He was reelected as LDP president without contest in 2015.
In 2016, the maximum tenure for the LDP chiefdom was extended from two consecutive terms totaling six years to three straight terms for a total of nine years. Abe beat rival candidate Ishiba in the 2018 LDP leadership race to secure his third consecutive term as party president.