Abe's health the centre of growing attention

In office for less than six months, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already showing some alarming signs of wear and tear, with some of the domestic tabloids even expounding on long-running rumours that he is suffering from a serious illness.

Two magazines to be published this week both ask why a supposed routine medical checkup on February 10 lasted nearly six hours. He also was admitted to hospital last July, Friday magazine and the Shukan Post pointed out.

Eyebrows are beginning to be raised within the party about Mr Abe's failure to attend evening events.

When attending the memorial service of a police officer killed saving a woman who was attempting to commit suicide on a railway track, he repeatedly referred to the officer as Mr Miyake. The officer's name was Kunihiko Miyamoto.

'The reports that he has some sort of stomach disorder are not new, but they seem to be growing more serious,' said Tetsuro Kato, a professor of politics at Hitotsubashi University.

'He has some serious problems within the cabinet and the party and it is very possible that the pressures of office are making his illness worse. In the past, other prime ministers have used the excuse of ill-health to step down, and that might be what we are seeing here.'

One suggestion whispered among those with access to Mr Abe's office is that he was only brought in to push through some deeply divisive items of legislation, including reform of the constitution, changes in the education system, raising the consumption tax and upgrading the Defence Agency into a full ministry. He would then step down and leave his successor with a clean slate and a better chance at the next election.

'The only problem with that way of thinking is who would be the person to come in after Mr Abe,' Professor Kato said.

The best way of determining whether Mr Abe was genuinely struggling physically might be to watch the political movements of the men who would be expected to vie for his position, he said.

Those might include Foreign Minister Taro Aso, former finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Yasuo Fukuda, the former chief cabinet secretary.