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Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, defined politics for a generation

By CNN Staff

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has died after being shot during a campaign speech Friday in Nara. He was 67.

Abe was pronounced dead by doctors at the Nara Medical University hospital in central Japan at 5:03 p.m. local time. He was admitted into hospital in a state of cardiac arrest and medical staff were unable to stop the excessive bleeding, doctors said during a press conference on Friday.

Abe served two separate terms as Japanese leader for the right-leaning Liberal Democratic Party — the first from 2006 to 2007, then again from 2012 until 2020. His second stint was the longest consecutive term for a Japanese head of government.

Abe will be remembered for boosting defense spending and pushing through the most dramatic shift in Japanese military policy in 70 years. In 2015, his government passed a reinterpretation of Japan’s postwar, pacifist constitution, allowing Japanese troops to engage in overseas combat — with conditions — for the first time since World War II.

Abe argued the change was needed to respond to a more challenging security environment, a nod to a more assertive China and frequent missile tests in North Korea.

During his term, Abe sought to improve relations with Beijing and held a historic phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2018. At the same time, he tried to counter Chinese expansion in the region by uniting Pacific allies.

After leaving office, Abe remained head of the largest faction of the ruling LDP and remained influential within the party. He has continued to campaign for a stronger security policy and last year angered China by calling for a greater commitment from allies to defend democracy in Taiwan. In response, Beijing summoned Japan’s ambassador and accused Abe of openly challenging China’s sovereignty.

Abe was born on September 21, 1954, in Tokyo, to a prominent political family. Both his grandfather and great uncle served as prime minister, and his father was a former secretary general of the LDP.

He studied politics at Tokyo’s Seiki University and the University of Southern California, but initially entered business, taking a position with Kobe Steel in 1979. Three years later, he became an assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Abe was first elected to Japan’s House of Representatives in 1993, at age 38. He held a number of cabinet positions throughout the 2000s, and in 2003 became secretary general of the LDP. Four years later, he was named the party’s president and became prime minister of Japan.

His first term was marred by controversies and worsening health, and he stepped down as party leader and prime minister in 2007. The end of Abe’s first term opened a revolving door in which five different men held the prime minister post in five years until his re-election in 2012. He stepped down in 2020 citing ill health.

Diplomatic record

Abe was a prominent figure on the world stage. He cultivated strong ties with Washington — Tokyo’s traditional ally — and attempted to build a personal relationship with former United States President Donald Trump, traveling to New York to meet the newly elected Republican President while former President Barack Obama was still in office.

During that “unofficial” meeting in 2016, Trump’s first with any world leader, Abe hailed the US-Japan alliance and said he wanted to “build trust” with the new President. He strongly supported Trump’s initial hard line on North Korea, which matched Abe’s own hawkish tendencies.

But as Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang tipped toward diplomacy, with both Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in holding historic summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Abe appeared to be sidelined.

No meeting was scheduled between Abe and Kim, and in September 2019, the Japanese leader said he was still “determined” to meet him. Abe wanted to normalize relations with North Korea and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but his first priority was to bring some closure for the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s.

During his tenure, Japan’s relations with South Korea soured. The two countries were engaged in a major dispute in which trade and military intelligence deals were scrapped, partly due to the legacy of World War II and Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Olympic ‘Super Mario’ success and setback

Abe came to office during a time of economic turmoil and soon set about rebooting Japan’s economy after decades of stagnation. Soon after he was re-elected prime minister in 2012, he launched a grand experiment popularly known as “Abenomics.”

It included three so-called arrows — massive monetary stimulus, increased government spending, and structural reforms.

Abe’s allies praised the plan for reviving the country’s economy and boosting consumer and investor confidence. But after a strong start, it faltered and in 2015 Abe fired “three new arrows” designed to boost gross domestic product. Any hopes they might eventually hit their mark were dashed when Covid-19 swept through the country in 2020, tipping Japan into recession.

One of Abe’s major domestic achievements was securing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Abe delighted video game fans around the world when he famously dressed as Japanese icon Super Mario during the closing ceremony for the Rio Games in 2016, to introduce Tokyo as the next host city.

In an instantly meme-able segment, Abe, wearing an oversized red cap, was shown emerging from a green pipe, as the sounds of the Super Mario video game echoed around the Maracanã stadium.

But the success of the much anticipated Tokyo Games was ultimately undone by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the competition to be postponed to 2021.

An initial unwillingness to delay the Games was partly credited for Japan’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic, which hit the country early in 2020. Abe declared a state of emergency months after the first cases were detected. His administration was also criticized for the low rate of testing, and an early lack of specialist medical equipment to treat the rising number of patients.

More successful was Abe’s handling of the abdication of Emperor Akihito, the first Japanese monarch to step down in two centuries. He was succeeded by his son, Emperor Naruhito, in October 2019, starting the Reiwa era.

“Like the flowers of the plum tree blooming proudly in spring after the cold winter, we wish the Japanese people to bloom like individual flowers with the (promise of the) future. With such a wish for Japan, we decided upon ‘Reiwa’,” Abe said on announcing the new era.

Abe is survived by his wife Akie Abe, née Matsuzaki, who he married in 1987. The couple did not have children.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Asia/Pacific

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