Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, The University of Tokyo
Shinzo Abe stepped down from the prime minister’s job, very peacefully. After the relapse and aggravation of his chronic illness which made his first premiership short lived, he took a decision to terminate his own tenure without clinging to power.
Abe was the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history by keeping his job seven years and eight months in his second chance as a prime minister.
In Japan’s political system, it’s been extremely difficult for the prime minister to remain in its position for long periods of time. Before Abe took office at the end of 2012, six prime ministers were replaced in six years. One of them was Abe himself who, from 2006 to 2007, stayed exact one year in his first tenure as prime minister without being able to demonstrate fully his ability to lead the nation.
When Prime Minister Abe made an unexpected comeback in 2012, the time was ripe. His political appointees in his failed first administration came back as more experienced and more prepared effective officials.
The “twisted legislature” which inflicted Mr. Abe in his first tenure as prime minister, which has different majority parties in the upper house, the House of Councilors, and the lower house, the House of Representatives, has been resolved through the LDP’s successive landslide election wins. Securing legislature’s support, Abe took full control of the government and stayed long.
When his ill health again made it impossible to continue his job, priorities were put on a smooth transition to the successor, Yoshihide Suga, who has been the Chief Cabinet Minister for the entire Abe Cabinet.
By choosing Abe’s right-hand man as successor, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party avoided any chances of instability.
Putting the interest of the stability and continuity of the system above all else, sacrificing individual’s ambition is a peculiar way in the Japanese society.
Prime Minister Suga was known and feared as a grim gatekeeper of Abe Cabinet and has long been a man in the shadow keeping low-profile in public, though in the internal governmental circle, Mr. Suga has been seen as an effective shadow prime minister, having a final say in many of the domestic files.
He kept his low-profile attitude until Abe’s illness deteriorated during the stressful days of COVID-19 emergencies. When Abe gave up, Mr. Suga was left as the indispensable person to keep the government going without disturbances.
No one knows for sure what happens when a man in the shadow turned to a man in the spotlight.