After his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a crushing defeat in elections to Parliament’s upper house in late July, and after vowing to tough it out, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe stunned the nation Sept. 12 by abruptly announcing his resignation.

While the opposition parties had been calling for Abe to quit, his unprecedented way of doing so — never in the history of Japan has a premier resigned the same day that parliamentary questioning was to begin — has drawn severe criticism.

The day before, Abe had spoken at the opening of the new session of the Diet, Japan’s Parliament, laying out his policies for the coming year. His resignation therefore came as a complete surprise.

Akahata, the daily newspaper of the Japanese Communist Party, said the JCP and other opposition parties “severely criticized Abe’s irresponsible manner, and the ruling parties were shocked.”

Trouble getting the Diet to reauthorize an “Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law” was one of the main reasons Abe gave for stepping down. While Japan’s “peace constitution” relegates its military to the role of defending Japan from invasion, the special measures law allows the Maritime Self-Defense Force to assist the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Abe’s right-wing LDP has been pushing to alter or remove the Japanese constitution’s Article 9, which prohibits Japan from engaging in foreign wars.

While the special measures law is not set to expire until Nov. 1, the Bush administration leaned heavily on Abe to make sure the law was reauthorized by the Diet sooner rather than later. The July elections, which reduced the LDP in the Diet’s House of Councilors to a minority party, put the reauthorization in jeopardy.

On Sept. 9, Abe announced he would stake his premiership on pushing the opposition parties to extend the special measures law. He made the statement during a press conference in Australia after meeting with President Bush.

“While holding onto his post in defiance of the severe public criticism delivered in the House of Councilors election,” said Shii Kazuo, JCP chair and member of the Diet, shortly afterwards, “the prime minister now says he will resign if he cannot fulfill the promise with the U.S.” He added that Abe’s policy of attaching more importance to serving the Bush administration than serving the Japanese public was a good reason for the public to force Abe to resign.

In the Sept. 13 issue of Akahata, Shii was quoted as saying that the resignation showed that the policy of the LDP and its partner, the New Komei Party, was “on the verge of collapse.” Part of this policy, said an Akahata editorial, was the economic “growth strategy benefiting large corporations, ignoring the increasing poverty and social gaps.”

Corruption also played a role in bringing about the prime minister’s downfall. In the past 11 months, five members of Abe’s cabinet were forced to resign because of scandals.

Now the LDP will have to select a new leader who will automatically become prime minister, because the LDP dominates the Diet’s lower house. The fight is between Taro Aso, the current party leader, and Yasuo Fukuda, who according to opinion polls would have an overwhelming majority of LDP votes.

Fukuda is seen as dovish. For example, he criticized the former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, for his visits to the Yasukuni shrine honoring Japan’s World War II military leaders, including prominent war criminals. However, Fukuda’s positions on revising the constitution and relations with the U.S. “war on terror” are not yet known.

In the meantime, the four main opposition parties — the JCP as well as the Democratic, Social Democratic and New People’s Parties — have agreed to work together on points of unity, including measures to combat corruption.
The Japan Press Service contributed to this story.