US ties, Olympic ambitions: the tenure of Japan’s former PM Shinzo Abe

TOKYO: Japan‘s best-known politician Shinzo Abe was shot at a campaign event Friday and left in a “very serious condition”, shocking the country and global leaders.
The former prime minister resigned in 2020, ending a tenure studded with headline-grabbing moments, from a turn as Super Mario to a controversial shrine visit that sparked regional anger.
Here are some of the most memorable moments of Abe’s record-breaking time in office.
Abe made building a close personal relationship with former US president Donald Trump a cornerstone of protecting Japan’s key alliance.
In 2016, he flew to New York to chat with Trump after the US election, becoming the first foreign leader to meet him at his Manhattan skyscraper.
The pair regularly golfed together, and Trump was the first head of state to meet Japan’s new emperor.
But there were plenty of awkward moments.
In 2017, the video went viral of Trump almost wrestling with Abe in a handshake that lasted 19 seconds and ended with the Japanese leader visibly grimacing and appearing relieved the encounter was over.
And then there was their 2018 golf game, when Abe tumbled backwards into a bunker and Trump marched down the seemingly oblivious fairway.
It was about the last thing expected from Japan’s straight-laced prime minister, but in 2016, Abe decided to show his commitment to the Olympics in an unusual fashion — by appearing as the video game icon Super Mario.
He donned the disguise at the Rio Games for the official handover ceremony to Tokyo, appearing to tunnel through the earth from Japan to Brazil thanks to some digital trickery, before popping up in full costume.
“I wanted to show Japan’s soft power to the world with the help of Japanese characters,” he told reporters.
Few political leaders can say their tenure literally involved the end of an era, but in Japan, the abdication of former Emperor Akihito meant the Heisei imperial era came to an end in 2019.
The new Reiwa era began in May 2019 and Emperor Naruhito formally ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in October, in a ceremony steeped in tradition and grandeur.
As prime minister, Abe had a once-in-a-generation role in the transition, pledging in an address to the new monarch that the people of Japan would “respect your highness the emperor as the symbol of the state and of the unity of the Japanese people”.
He then raised his hands three times, shouting the phrase: “Banzai!” or “Long live the emperor!”
His tenure was also marked by less light-hearted moments including his 2013 visit to Yasukuni, a shrine that venerates the souls of Japan’s war dead — including some convicted by a US court of war crimes.
The shrine is seen by many in the region as a symbol of Japan’s militarism during which much of East Asia and Southeast Asia were subjected to brutal offensives and years-long occupations.
Abe’s visit prompted outrage from China and South Korea and even a US rebuke.
He said the trip was not intended to inflame tensions, but he stayed away afterwards, sending only ritual offerings in following years.
Abe said little about what he thinks his legacy would be, but he cited one particular point of pride: bringing then-US president Barack Obama to Hiroshima in 2016.
Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the site, where he paid tribute to victims of the world’s first atomic attack, though stopping short of offering an apology for the bombing.
Later that year, the two leaders made a poignant joint pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor, the first visit by a sitting Japanese leader to the memorial there, issuing symbolic declarations about the power of reconciliation and warning against the drumbeat of conflict.

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