Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said Friday he is stepping down because a chronic health problem has resurfaced. He told reporters that it was “gut wrenching” to leave many of his goals unfinished.
Abe has had ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager and has said the condition was controlled with treatment. Concerns about his health began this summer and grew this month when he visited a Tokyo hospital two weeks in a row.
He is now on a new treatment that requires IV injections, he said. While there is some improvement, there is no guarantee that it will cure his condition. He decided to step down after treatment Monday, he said.
“It is gut wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals,” Abe said Friday, mentioning his failure to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia and a revision of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.
He said his health problem was under control until earlier this year but was found to have worsened in June when he had an annual checkup.
“Faced with the illness and treatment, as well as the pain of lacking physical strength … I decided I should not stay on as prime minister when I’m no longer capable of living up to the people’s expectations with confidence,” Abe said at a news conference.
In a country once known for its short-tenured prime ministers, the departure marks the end of an unusual era of stability that saw the Japanese leader strike up strong ties with President Donald Trump.
Abe achieved a stronger Japan-U.S. security alliance and the first visit by a serving U.S. president to the atom-bombed city of Hiroshima. He also helped Tokyo win the right to host the 2020 Olympics.
“For those who believe the Japan-U.S. alliance is paramount, that was his major achievement,” Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said.
Abe, whose term ends in September 2021, is expected to stay on until a new party leader is elected and formally approved by the parliament, a process which is expected to take several weeks.
Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006 at age 52, but his first stint abruptly ended a year later because of his health.
In December 2012, Abe returned to power. He won six national elections, bolstering Japan’s military and raising Japan’s international profile.
Abe on Monday became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister by consecutive days in office, eclipsing the record of Eisaku Sato, his great-uncle, who served 2,798 days from 1964 to 1972.
There are a slew of politicians eager to replace Abe.
Shigeru Ishiba, a 63-year-old former defense minister, is a favorite in media surveys, though he is less popular within the governing party.
A former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Taro Kono, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura are widely mentioned in Japanese media as potential successors.
Analysts say no major change of policy is expected after Abe, though Japan may return to an era of short-lived leadership.
Abe said he will focus on his treatment for now and “continue his political activity and support a new administration as a lawmaker.”
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