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Japan's prime minister Suga to step down after year in office marked by Covid, Olympics

Yoshihide Suga has struggled with low public approval ratings over his handling of the pandemic and for pressing ahead with holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
JAPAN-POLITICS
Suga has faced increasing public opposition, but his decision to step aside was still a surprise to many.AFP via Getty Images

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Friday that he would not run in the ruling center-right party's leadership election this month, indicating he would step down after just a year as the country's leader.

Suga, 72, has struggled with low public approval ratings over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and for pressing ahead with holding the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer over the objections of health experts and much of the public.

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In a surprise announcement after a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party, Suga said he wanted to focus on combating the spread of the coronavirus in Japan, which is experiencing its worst outbreak of the pandemic.

"As I was planning to run for the presidency, when I thought about the coronavirus measures and also campaigning, I realized a great deal of energy would be needed, that I cannot have it both ways and that I must choose one or the other," he said.

Japan is reporting record numbers of virus cases, averaging almost 20,000 a day. Tokyo, the capital, is in a state of emergency along with 20 of the country's 47 prefectures.

In July, Suga's party failed to win a majority in a local election in Tokyo that was seen as a key indicator of voter attitudes. It also lost a mayoral election in Yokohama last month.

Although the Liberal Democrats are expected to prevail in a general election that must be held this fall, several party members had reportedly raised concerns that they could suffer heavy losses in the lower house of Parliament.

Choosing a new prime minister now will probably help the party in the election, said Harukata Takenaka, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Suga had several achievements in office, Takenaka said, including declaring that Japan will be carbon-neutral by 2050, setting up a new government agency to promote digitalization and hosting the United States, India and Australia for a meeting of the "Quad" group of nations.

But Suga "could not really effectively deal with the outbreak of Covid-19," Takenaka said, although vaccinations have picked up recently after a slow start.

Although polls before the Olympics showed a majority of the Japanese public wanted them to be canceled or further postponed, Takenaka said, there was general satisfaction with the way they turned out, "so I’m not really sure if that decision to hold the Olympics really undermined the cabinet approval rate."

In an interview with NBC News ahead of the Games, Suga admitted it had been a struggle to sell the Olympics to the Japanese public in the midst of the pandemic.

Since the Liberal Democrats hold a parliamentary majority, the winner of the party leadership election on Sept. 29 is likely to succeed Suga as prime minister. Candidates must announce their intention to run by Sept. 17.

Fumio Kishida, the former foreign minister, and Sanae Takaichi, the former minister of internal affairs, have both said they are running. With Suga out of the race, other candidates may emerge.

Opposition leaders criticized Suga's resignation as irresponsible.

"I am extremely angry that things have come to this without any clear vision in sight," said Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party.

The Nikkei 225 stock index ended the day up 2 percent.

Suga's brief tenure suggests a potential return to the history of high turnover at the helm of the key U.S. ally.

Suga took over in September 2020 from Shinzo Abe, who resigned because of ill health just days after setting a record as Japan's longest-serving prime minister.

When Abe took office in 2012, he became Japan's sixth prime minister in as many years, including his own earlier one-year term.CORRECTION (Sept. 6, 2021, 5:48 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last name of a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. He is Harukata Takenaka, not Takenaga.

Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.

The Associated Press contributed.