09/13/2007, 00.00
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Stress, confusion and criticism sink Shinzo Abe

by Pino Cazzaniga
Prime minister resigns as his political clout declines and stress level rises. Japan turns out to be less nationalistic and more pragmatic. Abe’s legacy includes better relations in Asia, especially with China.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was admitted to hospital, a day after unexpectedly announcing his resignation. He is expected to remain under medical care for stress for at least a week.

Mr Abe's decision caught everyone by surprise. Party leaders were informed yesterday morning; many ministers learnt about it from the television. Few will miss him; many are critical for what they see as his irresponsible behaviour.

Abe quit at a time when the governing coalition was discussing the extension of Japan’s naval mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the fight against terrorism.

The July 29 upper house election defeat does not explain his decision to resign. His Liberal Democratic party (LDP) in coalition with Komeito still held a two-third majority in the lower house.

For some observers his reasons for quitting are elsewhere, in stress-related health problems.

For veteran politician and recently-appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano medical problems contributed to Abe's decision. He “was worn out and [. . .] needed to go through checks,” Yosano said.

When Abe announced his intention to resign, Abe did indeed look worn out, a man suffering from physical and mental exhaustion.

Opposition parties reacted by accusing the outgoing prime minister of dereliction of duty at a moment in time when an important issue was under discussion in parliament.

For Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the prime minister should apologise to the nation for resigning. “It's irresponsible for him to quit at this stage," he said, adding that in doing so he was causing political confusion.

In its editorial page, the Japan Times newspaper wrote that the “timing of his resignation suggests that as a politician he is incapable of making an appropriate decision at the right time.”

Some more balanced analysts pointed out that the unlucky prime minister was a product of the Liberal Democratic Party. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was imprisoned as a suspected war criminal but never tried, became prime minister in the late 1950s. His father, Shintaro Abe, was foreign affairs minister. And Shinzo Abe grew in a staunchly conservative political environment. Throughout his political grooming nationalism informed his choices.

During his tenure he did succeed never the less in having parliament approve a law to implement constitutional reform through referendums. Similarly, he was able to give education a more nationalist outlook.

However, most Japanese showed very little interest in his “Beautiful Nation” ideas. Instead, they have been more interested in bread-and-butter issues like pensions and bridging the rural-urban divide.

Ichirō Ozawa, head of the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which won the last elections hands down, knew this. In the upper house election, Abe made the mistake of framing the issues for voters as a choice between him and Ozawa, and lost.

Even then had he resigned right after his defeat he might have salvaged a future in politics. Now his career seems over for good.

Still he is not leaving office without a legacy. In foreign policy for example, he successfully oversaw progress in relations with Japan’s Asian neighbours.

“Over the past year," a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry said, “China-Japan relations have made clear improvement and development through the efforts of the governments and people in all spheres in the two nations. [. . .] We believe the further development of the relations between the two countries complies with the basic interests of the two nations and their people and this momentum will continue.”

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