Linked to an influence-peddling scandal and immensely unpopular, Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita has announced his resignation but left his successor and the timing of his departure unclear.
The Recruit scandal has bedeviled Japanese politics for half of Takeshita's 18-month tenure, and it appeared possible an elder politician might become interim prime minister until the situation is sorted out.The candidate mentioned in many news reports was former Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito, an elder statesman untouched by the Recruit scandal. But his health was in question - he is a diabetic.
"I think it should be a young person. It's time for a young person to be in charge," said Ito, 75-year-old chairman of the executive council of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.
Other powerful figures in the party that has governed Japan since 1955 are as tainted by money from the Recruit Co. as Takeshita, including his rival and party secretary general, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
"The Recruit question has caused a grave crisis for the nation's parliamentary democracy," Takeshita, 65, said in a nationwide television broadcast after telling the Cabinet of his intention to resign.
"I have decided to pull out in order to retrieve the public's trust in politics," he said. "As the chief executive of government and president of the ruling party, I deeply apologize."
Asked about the succession, he declined to comment, saying, "It is not the place of one resigning to express such opinions."
Once Takeshita resigns, governing party members would choose their next party president, who would become prime minister due to the Liberal Democrats' majority in both houses of parliament.
His resignation would also mean his entire Cabinet would leave office. The party leadership also would be expected to resign, news reports said.
Prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange surged after the announcement. The Nikkei Stock Average rose 1.34 percent, the year's third largest one-day gain.
Newspapers rushed out single-sheet extra editions with the news. The tabloid Fuji daily headlined "Takeshita Finally Resigns."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, traveling with President Bush in California, said Tuesday night, "Japan is a close ally and friend. We will continue to work closely with the new prime minister and government."