TOKYO (AFP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on Wednesday after less than a year in power, falling victim to a string of scandals that hampered his reform agenda and sent his popularity plummeting.
The conservative 52-year-old, the youngest Japanese leader in modern times and the first to be born after World War II, came to office determined to roll back the legacy of defeat by the Allies and build "a beautiful nation".
But a series of gaffes and scandals cost his ruling party control of the upper house of parliament in July, and Abe conceded that the resurgent opposition had made it impossible for him to do his job.
Abe's position had looked increasingly precarious as the newly empowered opposition refused to back his proposed reforms and an extension of a controversial mission in support of US-led forces in Afghanistan.
"I have made my utmost efforts with my belief that we should not stop reforms. But unfortunately, the party cannot hold talks with the opposition party because I am the prime minister," a visibly emotional Abe said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano, the government's top spokesman, also alluded to health concerns.
"We were worried. Prime Minister Abe was always assessing whether his health can withstand the hard schedule and pressure of a prime minister," Yosano told a press conference.
And a whiff of scandal surrounded the resignation as a Japanese weekly, the Shukan Gendai, announced that it would publish an article on Saturday on alleged inheritance tax evasion by Abe at the time of his father's death.
Abe said he had instructed his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to pick a successor "as soon as possible."
The party will likely hold an election on September 19, local media reported. Abe officially remains premier until that time.
Among his possible successors are Taro Aso -- the LDP secretary general and former foreign minister known for his blunt, conservative views -- and former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda, seen as a safe pair of hands.
Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has ruled out a return to office, turning down a request from junior LDP colleagues to run in the leadership race, the Kyodo news agency reported quoting unnamed sources.
Whoever replaces Abe will face a revitalised opposition determined to do its utmost to take the reins of power.
Ozawa said Abe's resignation would not soften his party's opposition to the Indian Ocean mission, which provides refuelling support for US-led forces in Afghanistan.
"Our thoughts will not change just because the head of the LDP changes," he told reporters.
The United States has warned that a Japanese withdrawal would damage relations between the long-standing allies, and analysts say Abe's resignation won't help matters.
"How can the United States expect strong commitment from such a frail leadership?" said Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of political science at Waseda University.
Abe suffered an election drubbing in July when rural voters deserted the LDP in droves, failing to relate to the prime minister's ideological agenda, which focused on building Japan's global standing and rewriting the constitution.
The opposition instead campaigned on bread-and-butter concerns such as mismanagement of the pension system and income inequality, leading to its upper house victory.
The opposition blasted Abe's decision to battle on as prime minister for so long after the election defeat, only to step down just two days after pledging in parliament to remain in office.
"I have never seen anything like this in my 40 years in the world of politics," said Ozawa.
Abe's government was also dogged by incessant scandals involving his cabinet, with several ministers quitting and one committing suicide.
Abe first came to public prominence through his tough talk on North Korea, which continued throughout his time in office.
He also reached out to China and South Korea, whose ties with Japan were tense under Koizumi due to a dispute linked to war memories.
China on Wednesday praised Abe for helping to improve relations between the two countries, saying he had played an "active and constructive role."
Japanese share prices closed down 0.50 percent as Abe's resignation rattled investors, but the announcement had little impact on the yen.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »