As Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe was known for his hawkish policies and his signature economic strategy of “Abenomics”.
Mr Abe has announced he will step down for health reasons, but he will continue to lead the country until a successor is elected.
After weeks of speculation, he revealed he had suffered a relapse of ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease that led to his resignation during his first term as prime minister in 2007.
His departure leaves a potential power vacuum in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at a crucial time for Japan.
Rise to power
Nicknamed “the Prince”, Shinzo Abe hails from political royalty as the son of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe and grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Mr Abe, 65, was first elected to parliament in 1993, and in 2005 he became a cabinet member when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed him to the high profile role of chief cabinet secretary.
His rise appeared complete in 2006 when he became Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister.
However, a series of scandals – including the government’s loss of pension records, affecting about 50 million claims – affected his administration.
A heavy loss for the LDP followed in upper house elections in July 2007, and in September of that year he resigned due to ulcerative colitis.
In 2012, Mr Abe returned as prime minister, saying that he had overcome the disease with the help of medication.
He was subsequently re-elected in 2014 and 2017, becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in the process.
Mr Abe’s popularity has fluctuated, but he has remained largely unchallenged as prime minister due to his influence in the LDP, which amended its rules to allow him to serve a third term as party leader.
Pandemic hits popularity
Mr Abe is known for his hawkish stance on defence and foreign policy, and has long sought to amend Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution.
His nationalist views have often raised tensions with China and South Korea, particularly after his 2013 visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, a controversial site linked to Japan’s militarism before and during World War Two.
In 2015, he pushed for the right to collective self-defence, enabling Japan to mobilise troops overseas to defend itself and allies under attack.
Despite opposition from Japan’s neighbours and even the Japanese public, Japan’s parliament approved this controversial change.
His larger goal of revising the constitution to formally recognise Japan’s military remains unfulfilled, and continues to be a divisive topic in Japan.
He is also known for “Abenomics”, his signature economic policy built on monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms.
These measures led to growth during his first term, but subsequent slowdowns raised questions about the effectiveness of Abenomics.
Mr Abe’s popularity has recently been hit by concerns over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Washable cloth face-masks distributed by the government – dubbed “Abenomasks” – were criticised for being too small and arriving late.
There have also been concerns that the “Go to Travel” campaign aimed at boosting domestic tourism has led to a resurgence of Covid-19.
Attempts to revive the economy have also faced challenges, with data released in May showing Japan had entered a recession for the first time since 2015.
Potential power struggle
Rumours about Mr Abe’s health started spreading in early August, after weekly magazine Flash reported that he had vomited blood in his office in July.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied the report, but speculation increased after Mr Abe checked into Tokyo’s Keio University Hospital on 17 August.
Government sources suggested he might be “tired” due to dealing with anti-pandemic efforts, with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso saying the PM had worked for 147 consecutive days until June.
Jun Azumi of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan questioned whether the prime minister’s health was interfering with his duties.
On 24 August – the same day he became Japan’s longest continually-serving prime minister – Mr Abe returned to Keio University Hospital, leading to further speculation about his future.
His resignation announcement on 28 August put an end to the rumours. However, it may lead to an internal struggle between LDP factions, because he declined to name a successor.
Without Mr Abe the LDP appears to lack someone whose influence can overcome internal party divisions.
Japan’s next prime minister will thus face the dual challenges of gaining control over the party while helping the country rebuild during a pandemic.
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