A Japanese aphorism used to describe being between a rock and a hard place goes: “Zenmon no tora, komon no ookami” (literally, a tiger at the front gate and a wolf at the back gate).
In the case of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current situation, Shukan Post (Jan 31) used this as a headline, with the expression modified to read “Zenmon no Koizumi, komon no jibyo” (Koizumi at the front gate and chronic illness at the back gate).
Koizumi of course is former PM Junichiro Koizumi, who has come out of retirement to mount a challenge to Abe’s pro-nuclear energy policies.
The emergence of a political rival from within his own party may or may not have an impact on the prime minister’s health, which in any case is subjected to considerable scrutiny in the article. It was indeed a “back gate” problem—- Shukan Post’s pun is too clever to be coincidental—that was believed a major factor in Abe’s leaving his first term after just 12 months in 2006-2007. The illness at that time was chronic ulcerative colitis—a type of inflammatory bowel disease.
The February 2008 issue of the prestigious monthly magazine Bungei Shunju revealed Abe’s woes in startling detail.
“He would rush to the toilet in pain, leaving the commode stained red from copious amounts of rectal bleeding,” the article read. “When his intestinal wall became inflamed, he felt the urge to evacuate every half hour or so. At night he made frequent trips between his bed and the toilet, preventing him from getting a good night’s sleep.”
When Abe began to float his candidacy in 2012, he emphasized he’d made a “dramatic recovery” thanks to an anti-inflammatory medication called Asacol (aka Mesalazine).
Rumors have begun surfacing that the frequency of his toilet visits have increased, raising speculation that his physical condition has suffered a relapse—a possible sign that Abe’s condition may once again be deteriorating due to the heavy physical and mental demands of the job.
Tracking the prime minister’s schedule of appointments and activities one day last November, the magazine noticed that a total of 65 minutes could not be accounted for.
“After leaving the Yomiuri Shimbun offices, Abe did not return directly to his office but made a top secret visit to a hospital for an examination,” one source speculated.
Stress is one of the most aggravating factors of such a condition. And while Asacol is revolutionary in its ability to alleviate the symptoms, it unfortunately does not offer a complete cure for colitis.
A source who is close to Abe is quoted as saying, “At night, the prime minister likes to nibble on sweets while reading. But he’s been cautioned by his physician that this is bad for his health, and now he has taken to eating ‘sanji no oyatsu’ (a 3 p.m. tea-time snack) of cakes or fruits.”
The craving for sweets or enhanced appetite may be a side effect of the steroids being used to reduce the inflammation.
In addition to the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election, voters in Abe’s home constituency of Yamaguchi Prefecture are said to have become restive following the prolonged illness of its previous governor and Abe ally Shigetaro Yamamoto.
It’s all speculation at this point, but a series of grass root defeats in local elections, and rebellion in the ranks by the Koizumi-led anti-nuclear faction in Abe’s own LDP, might just be stressful enough to cause Abe to suffer a serious relapse.
The past is prologue. And it was, after all, a major defeat in the House of Councillors elections seven years ago that led to Abe’s resignation—and that, notes Shukan Post, was also a period that coincided with his nonstop diarrhea.