The race to replace outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to narrow to two candidates Friday as the ruling party's conservative No. 2 leader and a dovish party stalwart who favors warmer ties with Asia formally announced they will run.
Declaring their intention to run in the Sept. 23 party leadership election were ruling party Secretary-General Taro Aso, a former foreign minister whose acerbic comments about China have drawn protests from Beijing, and Yasuo Fukuda, a former chief Cabinet secretary who opposes visits by prime ministers to a controversial war shrine.
Abe announced suddenly this week that he would quit for political reasons and then was hospitalized for exhaustion.
Both candidates are longtime officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and are likely to follow Abe's pro-U.S., pro-reform platform.
Aso, however, quickly moved to distance himself from Abe, who lasted only a year in office and suffered a series of setbacks over scandals and gaffes involving his Cabinet ministers.
He also called for an "open" selection process, referring to criticism that the selection of the next prime minister was essentially a matter of negotiation between ruling party factions, rather than a democratic contest.
"It is my duty to shed the image that the LDP is going backward," Aso said.
Fukuda also led Aso in a public opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News agency released late Friday.
He said he was moved to seek office because the party is in crisis.
"This is an emergency situation, so I will do what I must do," Fukuda told supporters at a Tokyo hotel. "I have a strong sense that I should do this for the country to move Japanese politics forward."
Party officials said a vote will be taken on Sept. 23 to formally name Abe's successor as party leader. The winner of that contest is assured election as prime minister by Parliament because of the LDP's majority in the powerful lower house.
It was unclear if any other ruling party members would run. The deadline for filing a candidacy is Saturday.
Aso, 66, and Fukuda, 71, both come from a line of politicians.
Fukuda's father was Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, and Aso's grandfather was Shigeru Yoshida, a pivotal prime minister in the 1950s.
Ideologically, however, they tread different paths. Aso hews to sharply conservative views, and once suggested that Taiwan benefited from being colonized by Japan in the first half of the 20th century. He also drew protests from Beijing for saying that China was a military threat.
Fukuda is a dovish critic of Abe's government and favors tighter relations with Japan's Asian neighbors, while opposing prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni war shrine, which critics such as Beijing accuse of supporting militarism.
The leadership upheaval comes as the ruling party is facing increasing calls for snap elections in the lower house.
Opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama said it was fruitless at this point to allow the LDP to choose the next prime minister on its own.
"The prime minister will not have the mandate of the people," Hatoyama said. "We should hold elections as soon as possible to judge the will of the public."
The voters appear to agree.
Fifty percent of respondents to an Asahi newspaper poll favored a lower house election - up 11 percentage points from a previous poll at the end of July. The poll of 1,029 people said 41 percent supported the opposition, while 33 percent favored the LDP. As is customary in Japan, no margin of error was provided.
Meanwhile, about 28 percent of respondents to the Kyodo poll said they think Fukuda would be the best choice as prime minister, while 18.7 percent supported Aso. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of LDP politicians. Kyodo interviewed 1,059 eligible voters Thursday and Friday by telephone.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Kaoru Yosano assured reporters on Friday that Abe would hold power until a successor takes charge, despite spending the next few days in the hospital.