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Monday 31 August 2020

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (18)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (18)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

In the old Fleet Street August used to be known as the silly season, a slow news month when even more confected stories than usual would find their way into the papers and interest in sightings of the Loch Ness monster would strangely revive. Yet the idea that news went to sleep was always an exaggeration, perhaps geared to editors’ holidays even more than newsmakers, and it certainly is now. The country from where I am writing, Ireland, has seen a major scandal erupt over a parliamentary golfing society dinner in Connemara, which is held to have violated public health guidelines and has caused the resignations of one government minister, one senior Senate officer and now the EU’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, and may soon bring down a supreme court judge as well. As the political editor of the Irish Times wrote, “It’s some toll for a few holes of golf, a few pints and a plate of beef or salmon”. But of course the really big news which has caused this blog to break its holiday is the sudden resignation of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
This wasn’t a total surprise, given that there had been plenty of speculation about two lengthy hospital visits the prime minister had recently made. Yet the announcement nevertheless took even his own colleagues by surprise, with the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, having declared to reporters just the previous day that the prime minister was sure to stay in office. So although, shock horror, politicians do not always tell the truth it actually seems pretty likely that this was a very personal decision which Prime Minister Abe had kept to himself. What is clear, nevertheless, is that many of his budding successors have not been keeping their aspirations to themselves, as the media has been full of stories in recent weeks about the thoughts and plans of Mr Suga, Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Shigeru Ishiba, Toshimitsu Motegi and others. So we can imagine that the prime minister felt conscious that the political vultures were circling, even as he was also conscious of a deterioration in his long-run, chronic condition of ulcerative colitis.
As it happens, Alejandra Armendariz-Hernandez, editor of the Japan Society Review, had recently asked me to write an assessment of a brand-new biography of Prime Minister Abe, “The Iconoclast”, by an American analyst in Washington, DC, Tobias Harris. So we accelerated its publication, incorporating news of Mr Abe’s resignation, and the review can be found here. Mr Harris also kindly agreed to my proposal to accelerate another plan, namely for him to speak about the prime minister and his legacy in a weekly webinar, so this will now take place on Tuesday September 1st at 13.00pm (you can register here), with Mr Harris speaking to us at his breakfast time. We will also be joined for the first part of the event by Keiko Iizuka, senior political writer at the Yomiuri and lead commentator on NTV business satellite’s nightly news show (which will be broadcast straight after our event. Do join us if you can, as we will also probably know more by then about the succession race.
One point about Mr Abe’s resignation that will not have featured in many of the immediate evaluations of his legacy, but which naturally features strongly in “The Iconoclast”, is that this resignation may bring to an end Japan’s most remarkable postwar political dynasty. Mr Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister from 1957-1960; his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, was prime minister from 1964-1972; his father, Shintaro Abe, was foreign minister from 1982-1986; and of course he himself served for more than eight years, from 2006-2007 and from 2012-2020. Taking the prime ministers alone this means that the Sato-Kishi-Abe family occupied that office for a total of more than 19 years, making up over a quarter of postwar political history. That’s quite a record.


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