What has happened to Shinzo Abe?

Shinzo Abe
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resigned on account of poor health. Speculations to this effect were rife after he was seen emerging out of a hospital earlier this week. Abe has been Japan’s longest serving prime minister, quite a remarkable feat for a country obsessed with consistently high performance, so replacing him will be a difficult task, though many contend his long tenure was made possible by the lack of dissent in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

I read David Pilling’s Bending Adversity, a sharp book or rather a portrait of contemporary Japan essentially detailing how, despite years of stagnation, Japan continues to be one of the world’s largest economies. Pilling, in his launch event at the LSE where I was a student that year (2014, I think), talked in great detail the fascinating cultural aspects of Japan that make it a resilient economy in the face of financial distress and natural and man-made disasters. In the book, Pilling particularly described the devastating impact of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear catastrophe that only served to highlight both the resilience of ordinary Japanese people and an arrogant and negligent political culture. Pilling‘s own experiences living in Japan as a foreign correspondent for six years resonate throughout the book with deeply engaging reflections and reportage. The book, I remember, had generated quite a buzz that year, especially at the LSE where my advisor, herself a widely respected Japan expert, had moderated the event and that had partly attracted me to the mysticism and exceptionalism of Japan in history.

Where do we place Abe in this context? Certainly very high up in the analysis, I think, since he has ruled for great many years during which Japan has struggled with disasters and stagflation that has wrecked Japan’s economy. A hawkish politician, Abe worked circumstances in his favour and luckily and the stocks too tilted on his side besides the currency advantage in comparison to Yen much before he became the PM in 2013. His efforts at reviving the Japanese economy from stagflation, much popularly called ‘Abenomics’ apart, securing Japan as the host of Olympic Games 2020 was quite a coup for Abe (which sadly has now been disrupted by Covid-19). His government has been widely criticised for its inaction during Covid-19. Observers now say, this is an “honourable” way for him to relinquish office. On a normal day, he would be criticised for abandoning Japan at this moment of financial and health crises.

Now, on to the speculation over his health: Abe hasn’t been well for quite sometime. With quite the reputation of a workaholic, he took a three-day break recently and used one day out of that for his medical examination! Meanwhile, his political rivals are what they are everywhere – challenging, demanding, often inconsiderate of his circumstances.

The CNN reports:

The do-or-die mentality gambaru permeates Japanese society, where the pursuit of a goal can carry more significance than the outcome.
“The prime minister insists that he be there to lead himself,” said chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga when asked why Abe, 65, had worked 147 days straight.
Abe has long suffered from ulcerative colitis, a chronic intestinal disease, and many worried that the stress of the pandemic combined with his health problems had finally caught up with him. 

Ulcerative colitis, when given prompt medical attention and care, can be treated so this brings me to why this condition has driven Abe to quit work. Partly, Japan’s extreme workaholic culture, popularized as “death by overwork” is to be blamed. Abe, like any average Japanese, worked long hours with no work-life balance, which also compromised his health severely. According to Japan government’s internal studies, one in five workers in Japan are at risk of working themselves to death. The Japanese word for it is Karoshi (death by overwork).

Here is the list of possible successors for Abe.

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