Abe becomes longest-serving Japan prime minister, legacy in focus
TOKYO, Kyodo - Shinzo Abe became the longest-serving Japanese prime minister on Wednesday with a total of 2,887 days in office, breaking the previous record set by Taro Katsura over a century ago.
Despite his nearly eight-year run, critics say Abe is still short of major achievements that could go down in history. His ambitious goal of amending the pacifist Constitution is still far off, with no substantive progress having been made in the Diet since his return to power in 2012 following a short 2006-2007 stint.
A fractured opposition and the public's apparent preference for stability after tumultuous years under a Democratic Party of Japan-led government have allowed Abe to enjoy relatively stable support ratings hovering around 40 and 50 percent.
The 65-year-old premier has steadily cemented his grip on power due to his track record of consecutive national elections wins, facing no viable contenders within his own Liberal Democratic Party to challenge his leadership.
For the remainder of his current term until September 2021, Abe is expected to intensify his legacy quest at a time when a myriad of challenges lie ahead, most recently a cronyism controversy over a publicly funded cherry blossom viewing party.
Looking back on the years spent as Abe's right-hand man in the administration, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said economic revitalization and the restructuring of the country's foreign and defense policies have taken priority.
“We've been tackling each challenge squarely, and seven years have passed fast in a way. That's my honest feeling,” Suga said at a regular press conference.
Defense Minister Taro Kono said separately that a stable administration is a plus for Japan's diplomacy and security, noting that Abe has forged close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“(Abe) is now a seasoned figure in international gatherings,” Kono, who had until recently served as foreign minister, told reporters.
Abe is often regarded as a hawkish conservative seeking to raise Japan's profile overseas. Some political experts say he has exhibited more of his realist side during the current tenure.
In 2014, he went ahead with a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution to enable the use of collective self-defense -- defending allies even without an attack on Japan itself -- and expanded the role of its defense forces under new security legislation in 2016.
Abe has so far ridden out a string of money and favoritism scandals engulfing him and his Cabinet members, apparently learning from his 2006-2007 tenure cut short by a succession of scandal-hit ministers stepping down.
Still, he is in the hot seat as opposition party lawmakers allege that his office partly covered expenses for supporters to attend a dinner party at a luxurious Tokyo hotel on the eve of the government's annual cherry-blossom viewing event.
The economy is seen on shaky ground despite “Abenomics,” an economic program that entails bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan intended to help the nation break free from deflation.
The world's third-largest economy barely grew in the July-September quarter, reflecting sluggish consumption, with uncertainty persisting over the fuller impact of the country's twice-delayed consumption tax hike in October from 8 percent to 10 percent.
In the diplomatic arena, Abe is now a familiar face in international gatherings and Japanese government officials say he can talk frankly with many foreign leaders, notably Trump.
But Japan-South Korea ties have hit their lowest point in years over compensation for wartime labor, a row which has affected trade and security relations including a military intelligence-sharing pact that Seoul is refusing to renew by Saturday's deadline.
The issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s also remains unresolved. No date has been fixed for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un despite Abe's overture.
Negotiations toward signing a postwar peace treaty with Russia have apparently hit a snag, hampered by a territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
Katsura (1848-1913) served as Japan's leader intermittently through 1913 under the old constitution of the pre-World War II empire. During his tenure, an alliance was forged with Britain and the Japan-Russia war was fought.
If Abe stays in power, he will have served the longest uninterrupted period as prime minister on Aug. 24, 2020. The current record holder is former Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who served for 2,798 days in a row. (Kyodo)