Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set to stand down, NHK reports

TOKYO — Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is set to announce his resignation on Friday, due to worsening health, public broadcaster NHK reported.

NBC News has not confirmed the announcement, which is widely expected to come during a speech scheduled for later in the day.

Abe has battled with “ulcerative colitis” for years, a long-term condition where the colon and rectum become severely inflamed.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and although it has not suffered the surge in virus cases seen elsewhere, Abe has drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.

The 65-year-old Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Donald Trump when he became President elect in November 2016. He was also instrumental in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, which were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19.

His resignation would trigger a leadership race in the Liberal Democratic Party, the winner of which must be formally elected in parliament. A new party leader would hold the post for the rest of Abe’s term and is likely to be elected in the coming weeks.

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On Monday, Abe surpassed a record for the longest consecutive tenure as premier, which had been set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half-a-century ago.

As the news of the NHK report spread, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei average tumbled by 2.12 percent as markets dealt with the uncertainty. Abe has made reviving economic growth through his “Abenomics” policies and boosting Japan’s global profile, key pillars of his time in office.

The NHK report comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between the United States and China and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Abe had pledged to beef up Japan’s defenses and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution, it’s unclear if his successor will take the same stance.

He resigned once before in 2007 during his first stint as prime minister, also citing ill-health but was reelected in 2012.

His last major public appearance was the 75-year memorial event of the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima — marking the end of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear age.

Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Adela Suliman reported from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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