After less than a year in power, embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday he intended to step down to clear the political gridlock created by the ruling coalition’s defeat in the House of Councilors in July and to expedite the extension of the controversial antiterrorism law.

“I have decided today that I should step down as prime minister,” Abe told a hastily arranged news conference in the afternoon. “It is extremely important to continue the fight against terrorism. It is my promise and it is my international pledge. To carry out the task, I decided that it is necessary for me to step down and change the situation.”

The surprise announcement came just three days after Abe said he was ready to resign if he failed to extend the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to continue Japan’s support for NATO-led counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

But Abe did not explain clearly how his exit — which many believe has come at the worst possible time — will prevent the creation of a political vacuum and successfully extend the MSDF mission.

Some aides and senior lawmakers in his Liberal Democratic Party said that a “health problem” was involved in Abe’s decision.

But there is possibly a more immediate reason for his exit. Speculation is rife in Tokyo’s Nagatacho political center that an upcoming story in the weekly tabloid Shukan Gendai will expose a ¥300 million inheritance tax evasion by Abe.

The announcement came just two days after he opened an extraordinary 62-day Diet session with a policy speech in which he called for opposition support to extend the special law, which expires Nov. 1.

It is the first full-scale session of the Diet to be held since the ruling coalition lost its Upper House majority in the July 29 election. Abe’s LDP ceded the position of No. 1 force in the upper chamber to the Democratic Party of Japan.

Wednesday’s plenary session in the House of Representatives was canceled after the LDP told the DPJ that Abe could not attend because he was stepping down. He was to field questions about his policy speech during the session.

During his announcement, Abe said the current political climate would not allow him to promote his structural reform policies with a strong popular mandate.

He said he has told the LDP’s top executives to quickly choose a new party leader, who would almost certainly become prime minister because the LDP commands a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives.

Separately, LDP Secretary General Taro Aso said the party would hold a presidential election “to avoid creating a political vacuum.”

A senior LDP official said the party was preparing to kick off the race Friday, with voting to take place next Wednesday.

Aso, the LDP’s No. 2 leader and runnerup to Abe in last year’s race, is considered one of the leading candidates to replace him.

Abe said he decided to quit after Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, snubbed his request earlier in the day for a meeting. Abe had intended to seek the opposition camp’s support in extending the MSDF mission, but Ozawa said his party did not turn down the request.

As recently as last weekend, Abe said he was staking his job on the extension of the Indian Ocean mission, which he described as a centerpiece of his diplomacy. The opposition camp, which now controls the Upper House, has vowed to block it.

On Sunday, Abe told a news conference after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney that he would not cling to his job if he failed to keep the mission alive. But despite his call for cooperation, Ozawa has been adamant that the mission runs counter to the Constitution and is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, Aso and Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the LDP’s General Council, said they believe the prime minister’s unspecified health problems were a factor in his decision to step down.

According to Aso, Abe told him on Monday he intended to step down.

He said he has been vaguely aware of Abe’s health problems for some time, but the prime minister appeared particularly fatigued after his return Monday from the APEC summit over the weekend.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano also said Abe’s health played a role in his decision to step down.

“One thing that he did not explain in the news conference was his health condition,” Yosano told reporters. He said he could not say more about the problem for privacy reasons.

Yosano said Abe’s health worsened after visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, and India in late August, although the condition didn’t require him to be hospitalized.

He said Abe’s health problems kept him in constant agony.

Abe took office Sept. 26, 2006, as the youngest prime minister since the war, calling for what he termed a departure from the postwar regime and advocating revision of the war-renouncing Constitution. He quickly managed to thaw Japan’s icy ties with China and South Korea by visiting the two countries immediately after taking office.

But he has since suffered from a string of money scandals and gaffes involving members of his Cabinet, as well as the fiasco over public pension records.

In slightly less than a year in office, Abe lost five Cabinet ministers, including one who killed himself. His public approval ratings fell steadily after achieving a high of nearly 70 percent at the start of his administration, which suffered from allegations of cronyism.

Even after the ruling coalition suffered its humiliating defeat in the July election and ceded control of the upper chamber to the opposition camp, Abe refused to resign, saying it was his mission to pursue reforms and avoid a political vacuum.

However, criticism lingered within the coalition when the Cabinet’s approval ratings refused to budge even after the reshuffle of Aug. 27.

Information from Kyodo added

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.