The political deathwatch on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began minutes after his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a historic defeat in elections at the end of July, leaving the opposition in charge of the legislature's upper house for the first time in Japan's postwar history. Abe resisted immediate calls for his resignation and seemed ready to battle for his job in the face of public antipathy. But on Sept. 12 the "fighting politician," as Abe liked to call himself, suddenly lost his stomach for the fight and submitted his resignation to a shocked Japan. "The people need a leader whom they can support and trust," Abe told a national TV audience.
The LDP will choose a new leader--and the next Prime Minister--on Sept. 19, and the odds-on favorite is former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who emerged as Abe's most influential Cabinet member. That decision could be followed by early legislative elections, and unless the LDP can quickly turn its fortunes around, it could find itself out of power for only the second time in its 52-year history. "The true nature of the LDP--a dying body on life support--has been exposed by Abe's resignation," says political analyst Hirotada Asakawa.
Once the dust clears, Abe's departure could also signal a return to the old Japan. Abe was elected less than a year ago, promising to centralize power in the Prime Minister's office--traditionally weak compared with those of other countries--and promote a more assertive Japan abroad. Instead, the influence has shifted back to behind-the-scenes power brokers, and the country appears to be retreating from the world stage. At this uncertain point, it seems Japan could go any way but forward.