While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in the United States for a summit with President Donald Trump, JAPAN Forward runs a series of articles that provides a closer look at the Japanese leader. Originally published in Japanese in the January 2018 edition of Hanada magazine, the articles were written by Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Prime Minister.
Here is an intimate first-hand account of day-to-day life and work in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomacy, speeches are key. The greatest feature of these speeches is the Prime Minister’s personality. He is direct, forthcoming, sincere, engaging. He is careful not to speak out of turn, or to be cynical, or to boast, or to hold forth on subjects about which he knows but little. If he were a major league pitcher, he would throw every pitch straight down the middle.
Mr. Abe’s method is to revise his speeches again and again until he is satisfied. From start to finish, he tries to speak with his own words. This must be why his speeches resonate with those who hear them.
Especially noteworthy is the amount of practice he puts into speaking in English. When he made the speech in front of the United States Congress in April of 2015, he practiced like an athlete training for a world championship. He apparently even practiced at home in the evenings after his bath. His wife, Akie, remarked that she had heard her husband practice his speech so often that she herself would have been able to deliver it from memory.
Prime Minister Abe modulates his voice for effect, but his main technique is sincerity. For him, perfect practice makes perfect. He knows that if he speaks from the heart, he will be heard and understood. Even so, I worry about his vocal chords. I once asked him whether all the speaking and practicing was not leaving him hoarse. “I get a lot of practice during elections,” was his wry reply.
The U.S. Congress asked Prime Minister Abe to print out his speech in advance so that copies could be available to the senators and congressmen in attendance. I was worried that this would have a spoiler effect, but it ended up being a surprisingly positive turn of events.
During his speech, the Prime Minister spoke fervently, in a splendid form that he had not achieved in any of his practice sessions. The representatives assembled in the U.S. Capitol building were awed, so much so that when Prime Minister Abe finished, many politicians brought him their copy of his speech and asked him to sign it. I heard that there were many in attendance who were unable to get Mr. Abe’s signature because time constraints forced him to leave before he could respond to everyone’s request.
Rule No. 1: No Complaining
Prime Minister Abe does not complain. He does not say cynical, nasty things to his aides. He never gripes about being asked to tend to seemingly unimportant tasks while already extremely busy with other things. He never bosses others around.
I can think of politicians who might vent their anger on undeserving secretaries and such, but Prime Minister Abe is just not that sort of person.
An extraordinary calm spirit underlies Prime Minister Abe’s strength as a leader. This is why relationships with him become warmer and more defined by trust as time goes by.
On the Prime Minister’s birthday, the secretaries from his first and second terms chipped in to buy him a present. The secretaries are all very busy, too. But this is the kind of atmosphere that Mr. Abe cultivates. People come first. It is a testimony to the man that so many others think so highly of him and are willing to make the time to recognize and celebrate who he is as a person.
More Than A Politician
I think I speak for all of Prime Minster Abe’s old friends when I say that it doesn’t bother me when some time passes between our meetings. This is because Mr. Abe is always the same. He never changes.
He also never forgets to repay old kindnesses. In 2016, for example, Mr. Hisayoshi Ina, a special editing committee member of the Nikkei Shimbun, passed away.
I went to the church to attend the funeral of my beloved sempai and noticed that Prime Minister Abe’s name was among the list of mourners. As the cards and telegrams were read aloud, there was one that spoke of Mr. Ina being still at work writing his manuscripts even on his deathbed. It was a moving testimonial and a great gesture of respect. As I wondered whose words of condolence those could be, the person reading them aloud added that they had been sent by “Prime Minister of the Cabinet, Shinzo Abe.”
In other words, Prime Minister Abe had gone to visit Mr. Ina in extremis. I reproached myself that I, Mr. Ina’s kohai, had not managed to go, but the Prime Minister had found the time to do so. Just then, some tall men in black suites came into the church. The Prime Minister then appeared and took a seat in the front of the church, having the honor of being the first to offer flowers.
What makes all this even more remarkable is that Mr. Ina, as a reporter, was not the type who would brag about his closeness to the Prime Minister. In fact, I don’t think that they talked with each other that often.
When a younger Shinzo Abe became secretary to his father, Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, he got to know Mr. Ina, who was assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps Mr. Abe came to Ina’s funeral in part because they had both been nobodies back then, so long ago. If so, then it is just like Mr. Abe to cherish those fond, distant memories, and to show up in person to offer his condolences decades later.
Prime Minister Abe’s wife, Akie, later confirmed for me that the Prime Minister is a gentle soul, and that his character is one of just this kind of deep regard for others. She wanted me to help change the world’s perception of her husband.
Praying, Striving, Improving
I understand that some who saw Shinzo Abe when he was young had him pegged as coddled and irresponsible. But time and responsibility have a way of changing people.
When people from abroad ask me about Prime Minister Abe, I tell them that he is a work in progress. He is still learning and growing, still improving.
Prime Minister Abe has taken the country onto his shoulders. He prays daily for wisdom and good results. His constant hope is to leave Japan in a better state than he found it, to hand on to the next generation the best that Japan can be.
Soon, the Emperor will step down and a new age will be ushered in. I think that Prime Minister Abe will rise to meet this challenge and will become even better because of it.
The Biggest Setback
Yes, there have been many accomplishments. But there have also been disappointments.
More than anything else, having to retire in a disgraceful retreat was the proud politician Shinzo Abe’s greatest setback.
When Prime Minister Abe’s first administration ended, even his biggest supporters were dejected and believed that his political career was over. There were perhaps ten people who knew then that Abe’s career was actually just beginning, that he would surely recover from his defeat. Those people are the core of his Cabinet today.
Prime Minister Abe himself must have thought there was no way he could end there. All the same, it must have been an agonizing time.
His wife Akie, too, although just 45 years of age, was largely written off by society because her husband’s star had fallen. But she rose above it all. She entered a master’s course and studied terakoya education in Myanmar, taking her career into her own hands for the first time.
Of the two, Akie was the first one to stand up and begin cultivating a new frontier. Perhaps there was a period when Prime Minister Abe was watching her for inspiration.
The Courage of His Convictions
In 2009, two years after Mr. Abe resigned as prime minister, Japan’s Zeria Pharmaceutical corporation bought Swiss Tillotts Pharma AG, the company that made the world-famous medication Asacol. This medicine cured Mr. Abe’s ulcerative colitis.
There is a bitter irony in the possibility that Zeria Pharmaceutical had been able to acquire Tillots due to a sharp appreciation in the yen at the time.
Asacol became widely available in 2009, and Mr. Abe started taking it, to very good effect. For the first time in his life, Mr. Abe managed to take control of the disease that had plagued him since the age of 17. It was as though he had received a new lease on life at the age of 55.
People who receive God’s revelation and become devout believers as if struck by lightning are said to have been “born again.” Their new life comes from God and is more powerful than their old one.
Analogously, Prime Minister Abe is a born-again politician. This explains the courage he has to stick to what he believes.
Mr. Abe has been engaged in domestic and international politics for half a decade. In that span of time, he has accumulated a great store of knowledge and experience. Today, the most powerful diplomat in Japanese foreign policy is Prime Minister Abe himself.
And yet, he shows no sign of slowing. Prime Minister Abe is a born leader. He drives himself ever onward. Politicians like Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso, who make use of the inexorable force of Mr. Abe’s dominance by giving him room to run and to exercise his powers to the fullest extent, truly understand what is in Japan’s best interest.
The Prime Minister is still just an ordinary human being. In the midst of his heavy duties, he may catch colds, even bad ones, and come down with the occasional fever. Most people would stay home on days like that. But Prime Minister Abe reports to work.
His physician of decades occasionally accompanies Abe on his overseas trips. The doctor tells me that Prime Minister Abe’s ulcerative colitis gives him no trouble at all anymore. When I go with the Prime Minister to the U.S., he smacks his lips over thick steaks and even has the energy to pep up his dinner companions with lighthearted jokes.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, PhD (national security), is special advisor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet and a professor at the Keio University Graduate School of System Design and Management, reading international political economy and Japanese diplomacy.
After graduating LL.B. from the University of Tokyo in 1981, he spent 20 years in print journalism before joining the Foreign Ministry in 2005 as Deputy Press Secretary. Until he left the ministry in 2008 he addressed the foreign press and wrote policy speeches. In 2013 he joined the Abe administration as Cabinet Councillor before assuming current posts in 2014. For more than five years now he has worked as Shinzo Abe’s primary foreign policy speech writer (although he does not openly admit it).