Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving premier, has announced his resignation due to poor health, ending a stint at the helm of the world's third-biggest economy in which he sought to revive growth and bolster defences.
"I have decided that I will step down as prime minister, with the belief that I cannot continue being prime minister if I do not have the confidence that I can carry out the job entrusted to me by the people," Abe, 65, told a news conference on Friday.
He said he had decided to step down now to avoid a political vacuum as the country copes with its coronavirus outbreak.
"I apologise from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus," Abe said.
He similarly quit in 2007 after one year as premier, citing illness.
Abe has battled the disease ulcerative colitis for years and two recent hospital visits within a week fanned speculation on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term in September 2021.
The resignation will trigger a leadership race in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - most likely in two or three weeks - and the winner must be formally elected in parliament.
Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida both quickly expressed interest in the top job, media reported.
Among others whose names have been floated is Abe's close aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Whoever wins the party poll is likely to keep Abe's reflationary "Abenomics" policies as Japan struggles with the impact of the coronavirus, but may have trouble emulating the political longevity that may be Abe's biggest legacy.
On Monday, Abe surpassed a record for longest consecutive tenure as premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.
Abe's resignation also comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between the US and China.
The conservative Abe returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his "Abenomics" mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He also pledged to beef up Japan's defences and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.
Under fire for his handling of the coronavirus and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels of his nearly eight years in office.
Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in virus cases seen elsewhere but Abe had drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.
In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.
Abe kept his promises to strengthen defences, boosting spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad.
In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War II.
A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence or defending a friendly country under attack.
But Abe proved unable to revise the US-drafted, post-war constitution's pacifist Article 9, a personal mission.