Shintaro Abe, Japan's foreign minister at the height of the nation's transformation into a global economic power, the diplomat credited with smoothing relations with the United States and most recently a leading candidate for the post of prime minister, died Wednesday of liver failure. He was 67.
Abe had been hospitalized since January and died clasping his wife's hand at Juntendo University Hospital, Liberal Democratic Party officials said.
"We have lost a very important person," Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu said.
A slender man with owlish, dark-framed glasses, Abe was considered the prince of Japanese politics because of his impressive credentials and prestigious family background.
At his death he headed the governing Liberal Democrats' second-largest faction. In addition to serving as foreign minister and trade minister he had been secretary general of the party, the No. 2 position after prime minister.
But Abe's long quest to become prime minister was derailed by a stock scandal three years ago and then illness following bile duct surgery.
Abe was born to a pre-World War I politician and an army general's daughter, and graduated from the prestigious law department of Tokyo University.
He became a political reporter for the national newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, but left journalism for politics in 1957, when he was recruited by then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi to be a legislative aide.
Abe won his father's parliamentary seat in 1958 and steadily climbed the political ladder.
He served as foreign minister in the administration of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone from 1982 to 1986.
As secretary general of the Liberal Democrats, Abe was credited with helping his friend and ally Noboru Takeshita succeed Nakasone in 1987.
Takeshita assured Abe he would be the next prime minister in return for his support but the plan collapsed in 1988 when both men were implicated in a scandal in which a close aide to Abe was charged with accepting thousands of discounted shares in the Recruit Cosmos Co. whose chairman was seeking political influence.
Takeshita was forced to resign and Abe fell from center stage.