NEW MISSION FOR SHINZO ABE AS STATESMAN AFTER RESIGNATION
August 28 turned out to be a hectic Friday for me. After attending an early morning study group session of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals (JINF), a privately financed think tank I head, I rushed back to my office in Tokyo just past 1 p.m. to prepare for my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show. It was then that I received a terse email from a reliable source:
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to announce his resignation at any moment.”
“Finally” and “as I was afraid”—these were the two thoughts that welled up inside me simultaneously as I read the message. But it was no time to be emotional, as I hastily exchanged emails and telephone calls with my staffers and sources. I made a quick decision to replace our program that evening with a special feature on Abe’s resignation. While collecting pertinent information, I contacted two veteran journalists well versed in the Japanese political landscape—Takashi Arimoto and Fumito Ishibashi, who both have served as chief political editor of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun. They agreed to discuss Abe’s resignation as my guests on “Genron” hours later.
Abe’s activities of that day released later by his office had him attending a meeting the whole afternoon at the government’s Wuhan Virus Countermeasures Headquarters on the premises of the prime minister’s official residence. As it turned out, however, Abe abruptly left his official residence in Nagata-cho at 1:57 p.m., heading for the nearby headquarters of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP). Obviously, his visit was unscheduled.
That visit prompted veteran Nagata-cho pundits to conclude almost unanimously that he had finally made up his mind to resign. It was then that one of them alerted me by email what was about to happen.
With a host of thoughts about Abeswirling in my mind, I started discussing the logistics for my reprogrammed news show with our producer, Nobumitsu Ando. Abe’s resignation came as truly sad and shocking news for many Japanese. His departure will be a big minus for Japan’s national interests in many ways. There are a number of things he has accomplished that only he could have done. And yet there are also goals he had which remain unfulfilled. What will become of Japanese politics without Abe at the helm? What will become of Japan’s relations with the US, our important ally who can make or break Japan’s destiny? Will Japan without Abe be able to grapple squarely with China, which is after Japan like a hungry tiger? As I was trying to sort out these thoughts, my cell phone rang. The prime minister was on the line.
Abe was his usual self as he spoke gently and to the point:
“I am sorry for causing you worry. Thank you for your kind concern about my health. A new medicine appears to be working somewhat, but the experts have told me that I will require full-fledged treatment. If I were to wait until the last minute without proper treatment, as they have emphasized to me, I would face the same situation as 13 years ago (when he was compelled to resign in the middle of his first term because of acute ulcerative colitis.) To avoid being forced to do so this time, I thought it best to make up my mind before it is too late. That’s how I have decided to resign at this juncture.”
As I checked later, Abe called me at 2:52 p.m.—minutes before a special meeting of the LDP’s board of directors slated for 3 p.m., during which he informed LDP officials of his decision to resign.
Frankly, I could at first only half believe that Abe would be resigning. But if I am to say that I had half anticipated his resignation at the same time, would that make the reader wonder if I am only saying so after the fact? Allow me to look back on the circumstances leading to his resignation.
In June, Abe’s team of physicians pointed to signs of a relapse of ulcerative colitis during a periodic medical check-up. In the middle of the following month, Abe started experiencing worsening symptoms of his condition, which easily exhausted him as he went about performing his duties. This he revealed during the news conference which he called to announce his resignation. On August 17, Abe was taken to Keio University Hospital for yet another checkup and treatment that lasted seven and a half hours. He said at the news conference that “the relapse was confirmed on that day.”
In the February 2008 issue of the Bungei Shunju monthly, Abe candidly discussed the seriousness of his ailment, specified as an incurable illness by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which had led to his abrupt resignation as prime minister five months before, in September 2007. Abe said he first contracted the disease when he was a senior high school student aged 17, explaining that with this disease one’s “immunity attacks his own intestinal wall, flaking it off and causing ulceration and inflammation, which leads to severe abdominal pain and a profuse discharge of bloody stools almost every 30 minutes, making it virtually impossible to sleep soundly.”
Abe’s physicians administered a new medicine following his first resignation, which allowed him to return to office in 2012.
On August 18, Abe’s office cancelled a major meeting sponsored by Abe I was also involved in. As for the reason for the cancellation, his office explained that his disease could not be cured by just taking a week or so off—which Abe himself understood best. Administering the new medicine would work up to a point but his condition called for continuous treatment with no guarantee that it would improve. It was no time for easy optimism. While I did not want to believe what I was hearing, I grudgingly prepared myself in some ways for the unwelcome eventuality of Abe’s resignation.
The explanation I heard that day was reinforced by what Abe told me over the phone ten days later, on August 28. It was clear to me that Abe had made up his mind to resign on August 17.
When Abe finally announced his resignation, I found myself wondering what would become of Japanese politics without him at the helm. He must first take care of himself and make certain he has a full recovery. But I am truly concerned about the future of Japan without a strong leader like Abe. After all, it was Abe who managed to get Australia and India involved in the free and open Indo-Pacific scheme, strategically supplementing a relative decline of America’s global influence. Abe also has exercised leadership in materializing two major international free trade agreements—the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement in 2017 and the 11-nation Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) minus the US in 2018. It is difficult to correctly foresee what will become of Japan and the world in a post-Abe era. As I worked on reprogramming my news show with those thoughts in mind, Abe’s news conference started at 5 p.m. on the dot at his official residence.
Throughout the news conference, Abe was truly impressive. Twice at the outset of his address, he expressed his sincere thanks to the Japanese people for their nearly eight years of support and heart-felt apologies for resigning before serving his full term as prime minister. And he answered every single question from the press modestly and politely throughout the Q&A session that followed his opening remarks.
Abe was also admirably cool and patient. One saw in him a statesman who had selflessly sweated blood on behalf of the people and the nation. Modesty, composure, and patience are the qualities that form the core of bushi-do (the way of the warrior). When these qualities are integrated, they bring to us unforeseen courage, making us much stronger than we can ever imagine.
Throughout the news conference I could well sense in Abe the integrity of a statesman in a Zen-like selfless state of mind after having made the tough decision to resign before reaching some of his goals, including a safe return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Although he has accomplished a lot, it must be to his great chagrin that he had to depart with still one full year left in his term, during which he could have accomplished much more. That, coupled with his genuinely expressed wishes for the peace and prosperity of Japan and its people, deeply touched my heart.
Watching Abe’s news conference live on television, there was one thing I absolutely couldn’t go along with—the sorry attitude of the press club reporters assigned to cover the prime minister. Their attitude contrasted sharply with the sincerity of Abe, who had done his very best in serving the nation while simultaneously dealing with his serious illness. The questions those reporters asked were proof of what they fail to recognize as the crucial challenges Japan is faced with now. They also reflected their twisted pride and questionable ability as journalists. During the conference, they gave no credit to the enormous time and effort Abe had spent in achieving a number of notable results for Japan and strengthening Japan’s relations with the international community. That sort of attitude on the part of the reporters would at least be understandable if they knew what Abe had accomplished and didn’t see the worth of it. But the questions they asked could not but make me conclude that they either have done very little research—or have an extremely prejudiced view of Abe.
World Will Need Abe Soon
The world is witnessing an awesome confrontation between the world’s two biggest economic powers—the US and China. But why didn’t any of the journalists ask the departing prime minister questions about crucial matters affecting Japan, such as US-China relations, North Korean missiles, or the threat from China? Why was it that they never even bothered to ask Abe how he thought Japan should be prepared to face up to the once-in-a-century challenges of the current harsh international situation?
It naturally makes one wonder if these members of the reporters’ club, who station themselves right in the middle of Nagata-cho, are in fact playing the role legitimately required of journalists covering the prime minister. They asked many questions about the detail of the process for the coming election of the president of the ruling party, who will be named prime minister at the Diet. Such details are of course important. But it baffles me by any stretch of imagination that these journalists never asked questions concerning the “panoramic diplomacy” that Abe has pursued and the rapidly changing security environment surrounding Japan. Members of the prime minister’s reporters’ club must show commensurate pride and knowledge. They should be able to hold an intelligent give and take with the prime minister about his policies and the future path of this country.
I also have another bone to pick with the reporters assigned to cover the prime minister. That is, if they claim to qualify as journalists operating at the center of Japan, they should have shown Abe the due consideration and courtesy Abe deserved during the news conference. At least one of them, Seiji Shitakubo of the Chugoku Shimbun, had the courtesy of thanking him for “all your hard work over the years.” But the rest of the press corps present remained thankless to Abe, who literally has worn out his body and soul trying to make Japan richer, more secure, and stronger. Frankly, before judging their conduct as journalists, one must say they demonstrated a deplorable lack of common courtesy simply as members of a civilized society.
Frequently subjected to nonsensical criticism from journalists who never tire of asking him myopic questions, Abe has stoically carried out his duties for seven years and eight months. Needless to say, not all of his footsteps have been 100 percent perfect. But he has worked genuinely hard for the nation and its people. As a citizen of this nation who has had the good fortune of making his acquaintance, I wish to sincerely thank him for all his hard work from the bottom of my heart.
There is one thing I feel particularly strongly about Abe, which I wish to share with you here: there will surely be a day when a man of his ability, experience, personality, vision, and stature will be called back to serve not only Japan but the international community. I sincerely hope that Abe will continue to remain a priceless statesman in great demand the world over for a long time to come after his untimely resignation as prime minister.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 916 in the September 10, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)