TOKYO — Less than a year after becoming prime minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga said on Friday that he would not seek re-election as leader of the governing party, paving the way for a new leader after his historically unpopular tenure.
Mr. Suga assumed the prime ministership after Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned last August because of ill health. Mr. Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer and a schoolteacher from the country’s rural north, had been a behind-the-scenes operator and always looked uncomfortable as a public-facing leader.
In the days before his surprise announcement that he would resign on Sept. 30, Mr. Suga, whose approval ratings plunged over the summer amid public dissatisfaction with his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Olympics, appeared to be trying to salvage his leadership.
When a rival, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, announced last month that he would stand for the leadership of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, rumors circulated that Mr. Suga might dissolve Parliament early and call a general election in a last-ditch effort to retain his position.
He had also suggested that he would reshuffle his cabinet and other leadership positions within the party. But in the end, with coronavirus cases hitting record highs and hospitals turning away patients amid a wobbly vaccine rollout, it appeared he decided that he no longer had a viable path.
In remarks to reporters on Friday, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democrats, announced that Mr. Suga had informed him in the morning that he would not run for leader in the upcoming leadership election.
Mr. Nikai said the prime minister instead “wanted to focus on the prevention of the coronavirus.” Mr. Suga also informed Mr. Nikai that he had withdrawn his plan to reshuffle the executive leadership of the party.