Japan trade minister questioned on political funds

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's trade minister was peppered with questions in parliament Thursday over possible violations of election laws, in the latest scandal involving female members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet.

Abe, a conservative, is promoting women's advancement as a centerpiece of his economic policy, and Yuko Obuchi, daughter of a former prime minister, is a star among the five women appointed to his Cabinet. Close attention has been focused on the female ministers.

Three other female Cabinet ministers have already been questioned over campaign giveaways, gaffes or alleged links to racist groups.

Obuchi said Thursday she was checking accounting details following reports she spent about 3.6 million yen ($34,000) in political funds on designer clothes, cosmetics and sundries over five years through 2012. She told the parliamentary session she was also checking allegations that her political groups paid for theater tickets worth 20 million yen ($190,500) for supporters.

Obuchi apologized for the alleged funding irregularities, but said she was unaware of them until they appeared in media reports on Thursday.

"I noticed the accounting issue for the first time after the question was raised," she told the upper house economy and industry committee.

She said the purchases were used for political activities, since she bought neckties and handkerchiefs designed by her sister as gifts and souvenirs.

The liberal-leaning Mainichi newspaper reported that Obuchi spent 3.6 million yen in political funds in a design office and a shop run by her relatives on 38 occasions. The conservative Weekly Shincho magazine also reported that her political funding organizations purchased baseball game and theater tickets for supporters in 2010 and 2011.

Another Cabinet member, Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, has stirred controversy for giving away "uchiwa" fans in her constituency, a possible election law violation, and for using parliament-provided housing while keeping security guards at her private residence in downtown Tokyo. She then faced outrage from opposition lawmakers for calling their criticism "noise."

Two other female Cabinet members known as Abe's close allies on the right were criticized for suspected ties with racist groups.

Sanae Takaichi, minister of internal affairs and communications, was shown in a photo with a neo-Nazi leader, Kazunari Yamada, on Yamada's party website. The photo has since been removed. Takaichi acknowledged that the photo was authentic, but said she did not know Yamada's views. Former Cabinet minister Tomomi Inada, another senior female member of the ruling party and an Abe ally, was also pictured in a photo with Yamada.

Eriko Yamatani, head of the National Public Safety Commission, posed in a 2009 photo with senior members of an anti-Korean extremist group known for racist attacks and "hate speech" rallies against ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Yamatani denied knowing who they were at the time.