Japanese PM Abe announces resignation over worsening health
Updated 22:19, 28-Aug-2020

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the country's longest-serving leader, announced at a press conference on Friday that he has decided to step down due to health reasons. 

"Now that I am not able to fulfill the mandate from the people with confidence, I have decided that I should no longer occupy the position of the prime minister," Abe said. 

The 65-year-old politician battled ulcerative colitis disease for years, and two recent hospital visits within a week had fanned questions on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and hence, premier, in September 2021. 

During his first tenure as prime minister, which started in late September 2006, Abe abruptly stepped down from his post in 2007 due to chronic ulcerative colitis. He returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his "Abenomics" mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He also pledged to beef up Japan's defense and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.

Abe said his health started declining around mic-July, and he did not want it to impact on important policy decisions. 


"I apologize from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus," he said.

Abe said that he would remain in office until his successor is chosen. The LDP will decide next week on how to hold a leadership election, with parliamentarians and representatives of local chapters likely casting ballots, according to local media reports.

Abe, who on Monday surpassed the record for the longest consecutive tenure as Japan's premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago, said at the press briefing that he will continue his political career and will run in the next election "as a member of the House of Representatives" in the National Diet – Japan's parliament.

Support rates fall over COVID-19 responses 

Under fire for his handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to the lowest levels in his nearly eight years in office.

Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in virus cases seen elsewhere, but Abe has drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.

A statue with a mask on in front of a department store amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Tokyo, Japan, August 18, 2020. /Reuters

A statue with a mask on in front of a department store amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Tokyo, Japan, August 18, 2020. /Reuters

In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.

Abe kept his promises to strengthen Japan's defense, boosting spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad.

In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War II.

A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense or defending a friendly country under attack.

But Abe proved unable to revise the U.S.-drafted, post-war constitution's pacifist Article 9, a personal mission that also eluded his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, who quit as premier in 1960 because of the uproar over a U.S-Japan security pact.


Ups and downs in China-Japan relations

In response to a question about Abe's plan to resign, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Friday that it is an internal affair of Japan and that China will not comment.

"China and Japan are close neighbors," Zhao said at a regular press briefing. "China is willing to make joint efforts with Japan to continue to promote the improvement and development of bilateral ties."

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What is preventing Beijing and Tokyo from being closer friends?

Relations between the two East Asian countries have experienced ups and downs during Abe's two terms.

Days after becoming Japan's prime minister at the age of 52, Abe chose China as the destination of his first overseas trip in October 2006. He was the first Japanese leader to visit Beijing since 2001. The trip was seen as an effort to ease years of deteriorating ties between Asia's two biggest economies.

When he returned to office six years later, China-Japan ties were at one of their lowest points since the normalization of their diplomatic relations in 1972. Tensions rose sharply in 2012 over Japan's unilateral move to "nationalize" the Diaoyu Islands, claimed by both countries, leading to a halt in bilateral high-level exchanges.

Despite strong opposition from China and other Asian countries, Abe visited the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 – the last time a Japanese prime minister visited the controversial Shinto shrine where 14 Class-A convicted war criminals were honored.

The tensions began to thaw in November 2014, when Abe attended a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Beijing. Since then, leaders of the two countries have resumed interactions on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings. The Japanese prime minister visited China again in September 2016 for a summit of the Group of 20 (G20) in Hangzhou.

The rapprochement gained momentum in 2017 and 2018 as the two sides enhanced communication over the situation on the Korean Peninsula and trade issues. Japan also showed enthusiasm in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Osaka, Japan, June 27, 2019. /Xinhua

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Osaka, Japan, June 27, 2019. /Xinhua


The two countries exchanged high-level visits in 2018 and 2019. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Japan in May 2018. He also attended the seventh China-Japan-South Korea leaders' meeting during the tour. Five months later, Abe paid an official visit to China on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

In June 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Japanese prime minister reached a 10-point consensus to jointly promote the healthy development of bilateral relations on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Japan's Osaka. Xi agreed in principle to pay a state visit to Japan in spring 2020, but the trip did not happen as scheduled due to the pandemic.

Abe made another tour to China last December for the eighth China-Japan-South Korea leaders' meeting in Chengdu.

This year, the two neighbors provided assistance to each other in the fight against COVID-19.

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Take common points to promote benign China-Japan interaction

A Chinese volunteer group distribute face masks to local people in Nagoya, Japan, February 20, 2020. /Xinhua

A Chinese volunteer group distribute face masks to local people in Nagoya, Japan, February 20, 2020. /Xinhua

Nevertheless, as an important ally of the United States, Japan needs to balance its relations with China and the U.S. as ties between Beijing and Washington face the most serious challenges in decades, said Liu Qingbin, an associate professor at Yokohama National University.

Abe's resignation will bring lots of uncertainties to China-Japan relationship, he told CGTN.

"He (Abe) knows his successor should take a balance between China and the U.S.," Liu said. "I think the LDP has wisdom about this."

(With input from agencies)

(Graphics by Gao Hongmei)