Are Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s weekly “workouts” masking something more ominous?

An oft-cited adage goes, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

This principle could easily be applied, for example, to the unpredictability of the tenures of Japan’s prime ministers.

Abe is still relatively young — he’ll turn 63 in September — but he is known to suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic, autoimmune condition first diagnosed when he was age 17.

In February 2007, only four months into his first term as prime minister, several weekly magazines ran stories about concerns over Abe’s health after he visited Keio University Hospital in Shinanomachi to enter the “human dock,” as a complete physical examination is referred to in Japan. Abe’s visit, the media observed, was unusually long, lasting from 8 a.m. to 1:48 in the afternoon. Finally he emerged, smiling, and reassured the awaiting reporters with, “There’s no problem whatsoever. I can do my job with full peace of mind.”

Seven months later and a year to the day he became prime minister, Abe resigned and was succeeded by Yasuo Fukuda, who all but publicly admitted his distaste for the job.

In 2012, a year after northeastern Honshu was beset by catastrophic natural and man-made destruction, Abe made his comeback. His “miraculous” physical recovery — said to be thanks to the drug Mesalazine (also known as Asacol) — gave him the renewed vigor to regain LDP leadership. As of now, his two terms cumulatively make him Japan’s third-longest serving postwar prime minister, after Shigeru Yoshida (2,614 days) and Eisaku Sato (2,796 days).

Since the end of World War II, it has become rare for serving prime ministers to die while in office. (The sole exception was Masayoshi Ohira in 1980). But the media is quick to pounce on telltale signs that the stress may be taking a toll on the health of the nation’s top politician. In this regard, Shukan Shincho (June 22) reported that on June 9, Abe and his wife celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary at an Italian restaurant. Later that night he collapsed and a physician was summoned. Although hospitalization was deemed unnecessary, the doctor advised bed rest.

The next morning Abe stayed home; but that afternoon he went to the Nagomi Spa and Fitness Gym, a members-only facility inside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Roppongi, where — in seeming defiance of the previous evening’s episode — he reportedly worked out for over three hours.

Leave it to Asahi Geino (July 6) to fill in the blanks. The magazine, whose contents normally cover celebrity gossip, sports and sex — topics nearest and dearest to Japan’s salarymen — cites a number of unattributed sources of the kind that may be said typical of tabloid reportage. In other words, it’s hard to tell where the facts end and the speculation begins.

An unnamed political insider told the magazine: “While Mr. Abe has worked out at that gym in the past, the real reason he’s been going there is to receive medical checkups. The expensive membership fee, ¥1.5 million, is enough to ensure privacy, and he is able to slip from the gym to a suite in the same hotel, where he consults with a physician.”

How has Abe managed thus far to conceal his use of a “top secret examination room” in the Roppongi Hyatt? Asahi Geino’s writer uses the word “hitakakushi,” which translates as “hiding at all costs.”

Abe is reportedly being attended by a team of several doctors, and any changes in his condition are closely monitored. In addition to two physicians trained in conventional medicine, Asahi Geino noted he has also begun consulting a third doctor who specializes in traditional Asian herbal treatment, perhaps using Daikenchuto, a gastrointestinal prokinetic herbal medicine whose properties are beneficial for various chronic conditions and intestinal obstructions.

“The powerful steroids Abe’s been taking as a part of his treatment have had strong side effects, and it’s believed that these are responsible for his sometimes ruddy complexion and bloated, moonfaced appearance,” a source at Keio University Hospital was quoted as saying.

Asahi Geino deduces that Abe’s visits to the “secret examination room” at the Hyatt had heretofore been limited to about once or twice a month, but after returning from the Group of Seven meeting in Italy on May 27, he visits the gym for his “three-hour workouts” every Saturday.

Has the accumulated psychological stress from a seemingly interminable string of domestic scandals, along with the looming threat of North Korean missiles, perhaps aggravated his condition?

In any event, the English word “post-Abe” has been cropping up in the media with increasing frequency, even more so since the landslide victory by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s Tomin First party in the July 2 Metropolitan Assembly election.

A reporter for a national daily suggests to Asahi Geino that Abe’s putting up a brave front reflects his determination, and he’ll continue projecting a healthy image until next year, when debate comes up for revising Japan’s Constitution.

“The left-of-center media and political parties such as the Democratic Party and the Communists made the mistake of overplaying the Moritomo Gakuen scandal,” the reporter said. “Perhaps they had hopes of forcing out Abe to prevent revising the Constitution. But that strategy backfired, and Abe seems more determined than ever.”

As things stand now, Abe may literally be staking his life on leaving behind his political legacy. Asahi Geino predicts the frequency of those surreptitious visits to the secret treatment room at the Grand Hyatt are likely to increase.

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