Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was hospitalised on Thursday for psychological stress and exhaustion, a day after suddenly announcing his resignation, his doctors said, compounding political confusion in the world's second-largest economy. Abe, 52, was to remain hospitalized for at least three or four days, his doctors said, leaving the care of his scandal-scarred government with his top deputy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano, as the troubled ruling party scrambled to find a replacement.
The premier's hospitalisation indicated health concerns had contributed to his abrupt announcement on Wednesday that he would step down. Toshifumi Hibi, a top doctor treating Abe at Keio University Hospital, said he had gastrointestinal inflammation and had been put on intravenous saline drip.
"He is suffering from extreme exhaustion," Hibi said. "He has lost weight. Symptoms include abdominal pain, digestion problems and lack of appetite. These symptoms can be attributed to physical exhaustion and psychological stress."
Hibi said Abe had lost about five kilograms (11 pounds). Abe announced on Wednesday he would quit, citing political reasons. Other government officials, however, including Yosano, said Abe suffered from unspecified health issues that contributed to his departure.
Yosano said Abe had been receiving regular checks from his personal doctor since returning from a trip abroad over the summer. He also said that the crisis had not reached the level where an acting prime minister needed to be named.
"His doctor determined that his fatigue level has reached its peak, so I think that the doctor concluded that he needed to be examined at a well-equipped hospital," Yosano said. Abe's resignation, meanwhile, left the troubled ruling Liberal Democratic Party to scramble for a replacement amid growing calls for a general election to give voters a role in choosing the new government.
The front-runner to replace Abe, former foreign minister and fellow conservative Taro Aso, was expected to announce his candidacy later Thursday. Kyodo News reported the Liberal Democratic Party would decide the election schedule on Thursday and campaigning could start as soon as on Friday.
Abe's popular predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, reportedly refused supporters' plea to join the race. But Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, who served as defense minister under Koizumi, said he wanted to run.
Calls for a snap election for the powerful lower house of parliament, which chooses the prime minister, gathered steam Thursday amid the confusion. The opposition took control of the upper house of parliament in elections on July 29, capitalizing on the unpopularity of Abe's scandal-scarred government. "With the LDP government thrown into this much confusion, the voters should be asked in the proper fashion who their choice for leader is in a general election," said the national Asahi newspaper in an editorial. "That is the only way to bring back politics based on the people's trust."
Abe made no mention of his medical problems when announcing his resignation. But his vague reasons for leaving, that he felt a new leader was needed to unite the ruling and opposition parties and the awkward timing fueled speculation he was forced out by the LDP leadership and suffered from health troubles.
Abe, whose support ratings in opinion polls had sagged to about 30 per cent, has not yet announced a date for his departure. When he steps down, Abe will leave behind a government known for scandals and gaffes. He is also leaving amid a political brawl over the country's aid to US-led forces in Afghanistan. Four of Abe's cabinet ministers have resigned in scandals, including one who quit this month just a week after being appointed. An agriculture minister committed suicide over a money scandal in May.
The Liberal Democratic Party said it would use a streamlined election process to choose his successor as party president, reportedly on September 19. The party leader is guaranteed election as prime minister because the party controls parliament's lower house. The leadership change came as the government opened its battle in parliament over the Indian Ocean naval mission, which the opposition has vowed to defeat.
Japan's navy has been providing fuel for coalition forces in Afghanistan since November 2001 under an anti-terrorism law that has already been extended three times. The legislation is a key issue before the special parliament session that opened on Monday.