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With Premier on His Way Out, Japan Focuses on a Successor
Ozawa has made it clear that he wants to derail the refueling operation as a way of demonstrating to the public the weakened position of the ruling party and to force the LDP to call a snap election for the lower house of parliament. Polls suggest the LDP could lose that chamber as well.
As for Abe, the grandson of a prime minister and, at 52, the youngest prime minister since the war, it was a wonder to many Japanese that he clung to power as long as he did, given his political predicament.
His judgment in picking a cabinet proved extremely faulty, as scandals and ineptitude had pushed four ministers to resign and one to kill himself.
With poll numbers dipping below 30 percent, he had became an object of ridicule, derided as a "spoiled little boy" by cultural critics and broadly faulted for a nationalist agenda that neglected a tightening economic squeeze felt by many Japanese, especially in rural areas.
The perception of his competence collapsed, opinion polls showed, when he failed to respond aggressively this spring to disclosures that 50 million pension records had been misfiled.
On Wednesday afternoon, Abe concluded that the game was up. He announced what has been obvious to the Japanese people since midsummer.
"In the present situation it is difficult to push ahead with effective policies that win the support and trust of the public," Abe said during a nationally televised news conference.
"I now believe we need change," he said, looking weary. "We should seek a continued mission to fight terrorism under a new prime minister."
When he came to power, succeeding the immensely popular Koizumi, Abe enjoyed high ratings in opinion polls and had some early success in improving Japan's tense relations with China and South Korea. He also pushed through an upgrade for the country's Defense Agency, giving it full ministry status for the first time since World War II.
But Abe appeared to squander his popularity on nationalist issues, which did not resonate with the electorate and which upset many people outside Japan.
He championed patriotic education in public schools and backed away from his nation's previous apologies for a wartime policy of forcing women to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.
Contrary to studies of the "comfort women" issue by the Japanese government, which disclosed more than 100 documents showing Japanese military involvement in the establishment of brothels and recruitment of women, Abe insisted there was no documentation proving that the military coerced Asian women into prostitution.
The prime minister did not announce a date for leaving office but said he had told his party's leaders to search quickly for a replacement.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.