Abe was pronounced dead by doctors at the Nara Medical University Hospital in central Japan at 5:03 pm local time. He was hospitalized in cardiac arrest and medical personnel were unable to stop the profuse bleeding, doctors said at a press conference on Friday.
Abe served two different terms as leader of the Japanese right-wing forces. Liberal Democratic Party – first from 2006 to 2007, then again from 2012 to 2020. His second term was the longest consecutive term for a Japanese head of government.
Abe will be remembered for boosting defense spending and for pushing through the most dramatic shift in Japan’s military policy in 70 years. In 2015, his government adopted a new interpretation of Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution, allowing Japanese troops to fight overseas – under certain conditions – for the first time since World War II.
Abe argued that the change was necessary to respond to a more difficult security environment, a hint of a more assertive China and frequent missile tests in North Korea.
During his term, Abe has sought to improve relations with Beijing and had 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 his Pacific allies.
After leaving office, Abe remained the head of the largest faction of the ruling LDP and retained influence within the party. He continued to advocate a stronger security policy and angered China last year by calling on allies to be more committed to protecting democracy in Taiwan. In response, Beijing summoned the Japanese ambassador and accused Abe of openly challenging Chinese sovereignty.
Abe was born on September 21, 1954 in Tokyo to a prominent political family. Both his grandfather and great uncle were prime ministers, and his father was the former general secretary of the LDP.
He studied politics at Tokyo Seiki University and the University of Southern California, but first went into business, taking a position with Kobe Steel in 1979. Three years later, he became Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Abe was first elected to the Japanese House of Representatives in 1993 at the age of 38. Throughout the 2000s, he held a number of positions in the government, and in 2003 he became general secretary of the LDP. Four years later, he was named party president and became prime minister of Japan.
His first term was marred by controversy and failing health, and in 2007 he stepped down as party leader and prime minister. The end of Abe’s first term opened a revolving door in which five different men served as prime minister for five years until his new one is the 2012 election. He retired in 2020 due to poor health.
Abe was a prominent figure on the world stage. He forged strong ties with Washington — Tokyo’s traditional ally — and tried to forge a personal relationship with former US President Donald Trump, traveling to New York to meet with the newly elected Republican president while former President Barack Obama was still in office.
But as Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang gravitated toward diplomacy, and as Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held 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 with him. Abe wanted to normalize relations with North Korea and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but his first priority was to help 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 embroiled in a major dispute in which trade and military intelligence deals were cancelled, partly due to the legacy of World War II and the brutal Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
The success and failure of the Olympic “Super Mario”
Abe came to power during a period of economic turmoil and soon set about resetting Japan’s economy after decades of stagnation. Shortly after he was re-elected prime minister in 2012, he launched a grand experiment commonly known as “Abenomics.”
It included three so-called arrows – massive monetary easing, increased government spending, and structural reforms.
One of Abe’s major domestic accomplishments was participation in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Abe delighted video game fans around the world when he dressed up as Japanese Super Mario icon during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Games to represent Tokyo as the next host city.
In an instantly memorable clip, Abe, wearing an oversized red cap, was shown emerging from a green pipe as the sounds of the Super Mario video game echoed through the Maracanã stadium.
But the success of the long-awaited Tokyo Games was ultimately undone by the Covid-19 pandemic, which pushed the competition back to 2021.
The initial reluctance to postpone the Games was due in part to Japan’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic that hit the country in early 2020. Abe declared a state of emergency months after the first cases were identified. His administration has also been criticized for low testing rates and an early lack of specialized medical equipment to treat the growing number of patients.
More successful was Abe’s handling of the abdication of Emperor Akihito, the first Japanese monarch to retire in two centuries. He was succeeded by his son Emperor Naruhito in October 2019, starting the Reiwa era.
“Like plum blossoms blooming proudly in the spring after a cold winter, we wish the Japanese would bloom as individual flowers with (the promise of) a future. With such a desire for Japan, we chose “Reiwa,” Abe said, announcing a new era.
Abe is survived by his wife, Aki Abe, née Matsuzaki, whom he married in 1987. The couple had no children.