Shinzo Abe* was the 90th Prime Minister of Japan from 2006 to 2007.
"And Kishi begat Sato..."
The story starts in Yamaguchi, on the western end of Honshu (the main island of Japan). By the late 19th century, one of the most powerful families in the area was the Abe family of sake and soy brewers.
A child named Kan Abe was born into the family in 1894. Instead of hanging around vats, as might have been expected of him, he decided to go to Tokyo and study law at the Imperial University. Upon his return to Yamaguchi he became mayor of the family's village, and then entered the Diet.
Now, Yamaguchi is not exactly a stinking hole of poverty. There were at least two other big-shot families in the area, named Kishi and Sato. One of the Sato patriarchs had been among the Choshu samurai who overthrew the Tokugawa bakufu, and so he had served as governor of several areas of western Japan in the late 1800s.
The families entered a merger of sorts when Shusuke Kishi married into the Sato family and adopted their name. As Shusuke Sato, he sired three sons: Ichiro, Nobusuke and Eisaku. Ichiro joined the Imperial Japanese Navy and became commandant of a naval base in China, resigning shortly before World War II broke out in earnest. Nobusuke was adopted by the Kishi family (which had no male heirs), studied law in Tokyo, became Hideki Tojo's commercial advisor, snuck around the purges under Douglas MacArthur and became Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Eisaku also studied law in Tokyo, administered several railways during the war years, became prime minister from 1964 to 1972, and won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Meanwhile, Kan Abe's son Shintaro Abe joined the navy during the war, graduated from the University of Tokyo afterward, and worked at the Mainichi Shimbun in Tokyo. It was here that he met Yoko Kishi, the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi (a cabinet minister at the time), and decided to marry her. Not long after their marriage, Kishi became prime minister and Shintaro Abe was appointed as his secretary. He went on to serve in many senior cabinet posts through the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in an appointment as Director-General of the Liberal Democratic Party from 1987 to 1989 before his political career ended due to old age and the Recruit Scandal.
The point of all this
I'm getting there.
So Shintaro and Yoko Abe had three sons. The eldest married a prominent businessman's daughter and has lived a relatively uneventful life. The youngest was back-adopted into the Kishi family and now has a political career as Nobuo Kishi.
And then there's the middle kid, Shinzo Abe, who (in case you don't remember) is the subject of this writeup.
Shinzo Abe: the belated subject of this writeup
Shinzo Abe was born in 1954 and attended Seikei University, graduating in 1977. At some point he squeezed in a study abroad in California, like just about everyone else in Japan.
He worked at Kobe Steel for three and a half years before returning to Tokyo to start his political career as his father's secretary (do you see a pattern developing here?) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After a lengthy apprenticeship, he won his first election in 1993 and moved up the ranks quickly to become Director-General of the LDP.
Late in 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed Abe as Chief Cabinet Secretary, a very high-profile position considered by many to be a stepping stone to the premiership. When Koizumi announced his upcoming resignation around the same time, and announced that he would let the party choose his successor, Abe was the clear front-runner.
Abe's unsurprising election
Now, don't get me wrong: there were other candidates in the running as well. Abe's most serious competitor, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, was particularly favored because he was opposed to Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine (a shrine in Tokyo devoted to Japan's war dead, known for its awesome entryway and its tendency to piss off Chinese and Korean diplomats).
But Fukuda bowed out of the race in the summer of 2006, leaving only two other candidates with substantial approval ratings. There was Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, an uber-nerd who many likened to Doraemon protagonist Nobita Nobi. He was basically like Michael Dukakis with less hair. Not much happening there. Then there was Foreign Minister Taro Aso, a former Olympic shooting champion who, among other amusements, referred to Taiwan as "a law-abiding country" and said in 2005 that technology would allow paper to eventually be replaced entirely by "floppies." Sometimes I wish he had become prime minister purely for humor value.(Update: He actually became prime minister in 2008. Sometimes dreams really do come true.)
Anyway, neither of the remaining two competitors ever gained much support, and Abe cruised to win the presidency of the LDP on September 20, and was elected prime minister by the Diet on the 26th.
What to expect
Abe is often said to be "right-wing." This is not exactly like being right-wing in America: he doesn't particularly care about abortion or gay marriage or trying people in front of zealous military officers who want nothing more than to send the bastard to the gallows.
The main element is that Abe believes Japan should be able to fuck people up sideways. He wants to review Article 9, the famous clause in the Japanese Constitution which prohibits Japan from maintaining warmaking capabilities, and has even hinted at the possibility of a nuclear weapons development program to cover the possibility of China and North Korea barking at the gates. One of his first actions was to appoint Arabic-speaking "airbrushed hottie"1 Yuriko Koike as Japan's first National Security Advisor.
Abe's dislike of North Korea is somewhat legendary, as he was one of the first Japanese government negotiators dispatched to deal with the North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. He has already designated a State Minister and Special Advisor to deal with the abduction issue, and has formed a special "committee" to deal with the issue--headed by himself and consisting of all the members of the Cabinet. I don't get the point, but maybe that's why I'm not Prime Minister.
His domestic policies are interesting, to say the least.
Koizumi won much of his popularity by putting together a coherent and intelligent economic reform policy which seems to be working (in that the rich are getting richer, at least). Abe's official economic platform is to do exactly what Koizumi did--this isn't bad per se, since it's what the people like, but it means that his foreign policy plans are the main point upon which he will be judged.
One interesting beef of Abe's is education--specifically, sex, gender and education. He was previously in charge of an LDP committee which criticized the implementation of sex education into other curricular areas, such as home economics. His committee also criticized "gender-free education," a movement among some Japanese teachers to eliminate all distinctions between genders in school, going as far as mixed-sex physical education and writing lines in textbooks to the effect that "there are no differences between boys and girls." His new cabinet includes a Special Education Advisor, a magazine editor known for her opposition to these policies. It's likely that one result of an extended Abe government will be schools where boys can be boys and girls can be slaves. Or something like that.
I want Koizumi back. Oh well.
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* Rhymes with nabe or Ah, Bay. Should not be pronounced as in that dude who freed the slaves. Go-chûi kudasai.
1 Actual quote from a Wikipedia edit that was, sadly, reverted.