TOKYO: Japan's longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, confirmed his resignation on Friday (Aug 28), citing ill health.
Abe said his health started declining around the middle of last month, and that he did not want his illness to affect important policy-making decisions.
"I have decided that I will step down as prime minister, with the belief that I cannot continue being prime minister if I do not have the confidence that I can carry out the job entrusted to me by the people," Abe, 65, told a news conference.
Abe has battled the disease ulcerative colitis for years and two recent hospital visits within a week had fanned questions on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as ruling party leader, and hence, premier, in September 2021.
Abe said he was receiving a new treatment for the condition, which needed to be administered on a regular basis which would not leave him with sufficient time to discharge his duties.
Abe said he had decided to step down now to avoid a political vacuum as the country copes with its novel coronavirus outbreak.
"I apologise from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus," Abe said.
This is the second time Abe has resigned as prime minister because of poor health. He similarly quit in 2007 after one year as premier, citing illness.
Abe took three days of holidays this month and on Aug 17 made an unannounced hospital visit, staying there for more than seven hours for medical checks.
He made a second visit to the same hospital a week later for additional tests and said at the time that he intended to continue in the job.
As the news of his likely resignation spread earlier in the day, Japan's benchmark Nikkei average fell 2.12 per cent to 22,717.02, while the broader Topix shed 1 per cent to 1,599.70.
Abe is expected to stay in office until his ruling Liberal Democratic Party can choose a successor, in an election likely to take place among the party's lawmakers and members.
There is no clear consensus on who will succeed him, with likely candidates including Finance Minister Taro Aso and chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga.
The conservative member of parliament returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his "Abenomics" mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He also pledged to beef up Japan's defences and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.
On Monday, he surpassed a record for the longest consecutive tenure as premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.
Under fire for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels of his nearly eight years in office.
Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in COVID-19 cases seen elsewhere, but Abe had drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.
In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.
Abe kept his promises to strengthen Japan's defences, boosting spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad.
In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two.
A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence or defending a friendly country under attack.
But Abe proved unable to revise the US-drafted, post-war constitution's pacifist Article 9, a personal mission that also eluded his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who quit as premier in 1960 because of uproar over a US-Japan security pact.
On Friday, Abe said he believed that whoever succeeds him is likely to tackle the issue of reforming the pacifist constitution.