Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seeking a fresh term in today’s election, is seen as a pragmatic and canny diplomat who has cozied up to US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, while pushing a nationalist agenda at home.
Groomed for power from birth, the 63-year-old is often viewed as arrogant, but has also shown a self-deprecating sense of humor, dressing up as video game icon Super Mario as last year’s Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics closed to give a zany preview of Tokyo 2020.
The third-generation politician captured global attention when he became the first foreign leader to visit Trump Tower in New York — before Trump was even inaugurated — warmly shaking hands with the tycoon in glittering surroundings.
The golf-loving pair then jetted off to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a spot of “golf diplomacy,” with Trump praising Abe’s “strong hands” and a “very, very good chemistry.”
With opinion polls predicting a comfortable victory today, Abe is likely to welcome Trump to Tokyo this month as planned, with an even firmer grip on power.
However, Abe has also cultivated ties with Putin, inviting the Kremlin strongman to his hometown of Nagato for a so-called “hot spring summit” as part of a bid to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities.
Abe seemed born to lead Japan, the latest in three generations of powerful politicians.
His grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a World War II cabinet member briefly arrested for war crimes — but never charged — who became prime minister and forged an alliance with the US.
His father, Shintaro Abe, rose to be foreign minister, but never won the top job. Shinzo took Shintaro’s parliamentary seat in 1993 following his death.
Abe cut his teeth by taking a hawkish line on North Korea and became the handpicked successor to popular former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, whom he served as an eager and earnest deputy.
When he finally reached the top of the greasy pole in 2006, he became the country’s youngest-ever prime minister — just 52 years old — and the first born after World War II.
However, he left office abruptly 12 months later, citing debilitating bowel problems caused by exhaustion and stress, becoming the first in a series of short-lived premiers, each of whom lasted around a year.
Recovered, he swept back to power in 2012 on a pledge to reignite Japan’s once-booming economy and carry out “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map.”
On the economic front, he pioneered a multi-pronged policy dubbed “Abenomics,” a combination of generous government spending and central bank monetary easing.
Japan — the world’s third-largest economy — is enjoying its longest period of expansion in more than a decade, but inflation is stuck stubbornly, as consumer spending remains underwhelming.
In domestic policy, he has pursued a nationalist agenda, proposing to change Japan’s US-imposed pacifist constitution in his election manifesto, so that the country could turn its self-defense forces into a full-fledged army.
This has led to tensions with China and South Korea, not helped by his inflammatory visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Tokyo’s militarist past.
In recent months, Abe saw public support plunge over a series of scandals, including allegations of favoritism to a friend in a business deal — which Abe strongly denies.
When his Liberal Democratic Party suffered a drubbing in local Tokyo elections in July, analysts and media blamed it on the increasing “arrogance” of the prime minister and his government.
This left him fighting for his political life — in the words of one observer, scrambling to crawl out of a “hell hole.”
Abe’s reputation for arrogance was not helped when he shouted down hecklers at a rally, and voters turned in droves to support charismatic Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
However, he swiftly reshuffled his cabinet and polls showed that voters approved of his hawkish reaction to North Korean missiles, giving him a bump in the ratings and apparently tempting him into the gamble of a snap election.
On a personal level, Abe is married to Akie, the daughter of a prominent businessman, who is known for her love of South Korean culture.
In the early days of his political career, Japanese media focused on how he would walk hand-in-hand with his wife — an unusual sight in a country where politicians’ partners rarely appear in public.
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