Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced today that he would quit his office, saying he lacked the necessary support to pursue the agenda that drove his political career.
Abe, 52, had vowed as recently as Monday to carry on as prime minister, despite the crushing defeat delivered to his governing Liberal Democratic Party in elections for the upper house of parliament in July.
But with his support in polls stuck at 30% or lower and the opposition signaling it would obstruct his plans to govern, Abe faced the prospect of trying to lead with ever-diminishing influence. "The people need a leader whom they can support and trust," Abe said today in a nationally televised news conference.
The trigger for his resignation was the awareness that he would not be able to renew a special anti-terrorism law that allowed Japan's military to assist American-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which now controls the upper house, had promised to block any extension of the mission, a crippling blow to a prime minister who had repeatedly pledged his commitment to Washington.
"Japan needs a new leader to fight against terrorism," Abe said.
An administration that began with high hopes for Abe, the first Japanese prime minister born after World War II, ended after just a year. After a promising start that included a rapprochement with China, Abe's government sank into chaos and confusion wrought by scandals and verbal gaffes.
Abe will be able to claim small successes in his nationalist agenda, from revising Japan's basic education law to reflect a more patriotic spirit, to elevating the country's defense establishment to full ministerial rank.
But his grander ambitions of reforming Japan's pacifist Constitution foundered as his government, almost from the start, was repeatedly wounded by scandals. A stream of revelations over the abuse of political funds led to the resignations of several aides and Cabinet ministers, including an embarrassing streak of two agriculture ministers forced to quit and a third who committed suicide.
The chaos left Abe with a reputation as a weak and ineffectual leader. Even a recent Cabinet shuffle designed to give him a fresh start collapsed within days as several new scandals emerged.
The LDP, which controls the lower house of parliament, will now hold an internal election to find a replacement for Abe. Among those with an inside track is Taro Aso, a streetwise former foreign minister and party chief who shares Abe's nationalistic world view.
Another possible contender is Yasuo Fukuda, a former chief Cabinet secretary who may be regarded as a pair of steady hands as the party lurches through this period of crisis.