NEW YORK - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday he will step down as Japan's leader as he needs to be treated for a flare-up of the intestinal disease that led to his first resignation as premier in 2007.
Abe said he had been able to keep the illness, ulcerative colitis, under control for nearly eight years into his tenure, but he started to feel fatigue from mid-July and was diagnosed with a relapse earlier this month.
"As I am no longer in a condition to respond confidently to the mandate of the people, I have decided I should not stay in the prime minister's post," he said at a press conference.
He said he thought now was the right time to step down because the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed and he has been able to compile new measures against the virus, including expanding testing capacity to 200,000 a day.
Abe will not name an acting prime minister and will serve until the next leader is chosen. Asked who should succeed him, the premier refrained from commenting.
Leading candidates include Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who has often been critical of Abe, and Fumio Kishida, the policy chief of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and a former foreign minister.
The LDP will decide next Tuesday on how to hold a leadership election, with parliamentarians and representatives of local chapters likely casting ballots, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Abe, who has been premier since December 2012 following his first 2006-2007 stint in the post, just recently achieved the feat of staying in the top government post for the longest uninterrupted term in the country's history.
His decision to quit came as a surprise to many, including his close aides. "I was taken aback," Tomomi Inada, one of the aides, said at LDP headquarters, noting the announcement was all too sudden and unexpected.
The 65-year-old LDP president made a series of hospital visits in August for what his aides called a "regular health checkup" and follow-ups after he was reported as having vomited blood at the prime minister's office in early July.
Questions about Abe's health had been raised from time to time after he abruptly resigned due to worsening of his chronic illness -- ulcerative colitis -- in 2007, only a year after becoming the country's youngest premier in the postwar era at age 52.
After returning to power in 2012, Abe said he had overcome the intestinal disease with the help of a new drug. On Aug. 24, he became Japan's longest-serving prime minister by number of consecutive days in office, eclipsing the previous record of 2,798 days held by his great uncle Eisaku Sato (1901-1975).
But Abe's health came under fresh scrutiny with his repeated hospital visits after he kept a low profile without holding any press conferences for nearly 50 days through early August, despite calls for him to explain the government's handling of the coronavirus to the public.
His government's measures to deal with the pandemic have been plagued by missteps, including the distribution of washable cloth face masks, which proved highly unpopular as they were seen as being too small and arriving too late.
The masks became known as "Abenomask," which means "Abe's mask" in Japanese and is a pun on his touted "Abenomics" economic policy package that calls for bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan, generous fiscal spending and deregulations to spur economic growth.
The government also drew flak for suddenly abolishing its plan to offer 300,000 yen ($2,830) to financially struggling households amid the pandemic and deciding to provide 100,000 yen to every household instead, and for trouble with online applications.
A Kyodo News opinion poll in July found 59.1 percent had been discontent with the government's handling of the pandemic. The approval rate for Abe's Cabinet, which stood at 62 percent at the start of his second stint, came to 36.0 percent in August.
Abe had initially appeared to be on course to shore up the country's economy with Abenomics by setting the inflation target at 2 percent and introducing massive monetary easing, which has given a boost to Japanese stock indexes.
But more than seven years after the launch of his government, Japan has yet to meet the inflation target and the prolonged low interest rate has hurt the health of financial institutions.
He raised the consumption tax twice, to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2019.
Abe was often regarded as a hawkish conservative seeking to raise Japan's profile overseas.
In 2014, he went ahead with a reinterpretation of the pacifist Constitution to enable the use of collective self-defense -- defending allies even without an attack on Japan itself -- and expanded the role of its defense forces under new security legislation in 2016.
In the diplomatic arena, Abe was a familiar face in international gatherings and Japanese government officials said he could talk frankly with many foreign leaders, notably U.S. President Donald Trump.
With Trump pushing for Japan to buy more U.S. farm products and pay more of the costs associated with hosting U.S. troops, the government under Abe speedily reached a trade agreement with Washington to lower tariffs on U.S. beef while significantly increasing its purchases of U.S. military equipment.
Abe has ridden out a string of money and favoritism scandals engulfing him and his Cabinet members, including the dubious sale of state-owned land to a school operator linked to his wife Akie.