Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a surprise move on Friday he would step down, setting the stage for a new premier after a one-year tenure marred by an unpopular COVID-19 response and sinking public support.
Suga, who took over after Shinzo Abe resigned last September citing ill health, has seen his approval ratings drop below 30% as the nation struggles with its worst wave of COVID-19 infections ahead of a general election this year.
Suga did not capitalise on his last major achievement - hosting the Olympics, which were postponed months before he took office as coronavirus cases surged.
His decision not to seek reelection as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president this month means the party will choose a new leader, who will become prime minister.
There is no clear frontrunner, but the popular minister in charge of Japan's vaccination rollout, Taro Kono, intends to run, broadcaster TBS said on Friday without citing sources. Former foreign minister Fumio Kishida has already thrown his hat in the ring.
Before Abe's record eight-year tenure, Japan had gone through six prime ministers in as many years, including Abe's own troubled first one-year term.
Tokyo stocks jumped on news of Suga's decision, with the benchmark Nikkei (.N225) rising 2% and the broader Topix (.TOPX) hitting its highest levels since 1991.
"I want to focus on coronavirus response, so I told the LDP executive meeting that I've decided not to run in the party leadership race," Suga told reporters. "I judged that I cannot juggle both and I should concentrate on either of them."
He said he would hold a news conference as early as next week.
Suga's abrupt resignation ended a rollercoaster week in which he pulled out all the stops to save his job, including suggestions he would sack his long-term party ally, as well as plans to dissolve parliament and reshuffle party executive and his cabinet.
He is expected to stay on until his successor is chosen in the party election slated for Sept. 29. The winner, assured of being premier due to the LDP's majority in the lower house of parliament, must call the general election by Nov. 28.
Suga has been an important ally for U.S. President Joe Biden in pushing back against China's increasingly assertive behavior and he was the first foreign leader Biden welcomed in person at the White House in April. read more
A State Department spokesperson said Biden was grateful for Suga’s leadership and partnership on shared challenges, including COVID-19, climate change, North Korea, China, and preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
"The U.S.-Japan alliance is and will remain ironclad, not just between our governments, but our people," the spokesperson said.
Really can't underestimate the importance of Suga being the first foreign head of state to visit the Biden White House for an official visit with President Biden, and for Suga to then resign as Biden faces his own growing domestic problems. Biden did this to emphasize Japan as a counter to China's ambitions. Somehow I think China believes it can continue to do whatever it damn well pleases after the events of the last few weeks.
That's not going to be good in the short or the long run.