Toyota Motor Corp. President Katsuaki Watanabe will leave his role as president next year, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The newspaper says Watanabe, 66, will assume the largely honorary role of chairman of Toyota, a post currently held by former TMC president Fujio Cho.

The 71-year-old Cho suffers from back problems and reportedly is unable to continue to fulfill his duties. Toyota Motor North America Inc. spokeswoman Mira Sleilati calls the report “speculation” and would not confirm or deny that Cho’s health is poor.

Watanabe also will become head of the Japanese business lobby Keidanren, the newspaper says.

Watanabe, who has been at the helm of TMC for nearly four years, announced Dec. 22 the auto maker likely will post its first-ever fiscal-year operating loss.

Toyota has been battered by the same forces affecting all auto makers this year, including a run-up in gas prices, which led to an historic shutdown of its San Antonio Tundra fullsize-pickup truck plant.

Toyota’s U.S. sales declined 13.4% through November, Ward’s data shows.

The Wall Street Journal pegs Watanabe’s likely successor as executive vice presidents Mitsuo Kinoshita or Akio Toyoda. The latter is the grandson of TMC founder Kiichiro Toyoda and is considered to be the favorite of older board members. Others believe, in light of the current economic crisis, he is too young and inexperienced.