Japan's trade minister quits over funding scandal

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's trade minister resigned Monday and reports said the justice minister would also quit amid allegations of misuse of campaign funds, in the biggest setbacks so far for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative administration.

Yuko Obuchi, daughter of a former prime minister and a rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, resigned as trade minister, saying she needed to focus on an investigation into discrepancies in accounting for election funds. She did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

National broadcaster NHK and other Japanese media said Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also planned to resign after the opposition Democratic Party of Japan filed a criminal complaint against her.

Obuchi and Matsushima are among five women Abe named to his Cabinet in a reshuffle early last month, part of his effort to promote women in politics and business. Scandals over campaign funding and other activities by those politicians have marred his efforts to raise the profile of women both in politics and business.

Obuchi told reporters that the investigation into the allegations would interfere with her duties as minister of economy, trade and industry, which include overseeing the cleanup and decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

"I take seriously the impact I have caused," Obuchi said. "My heart is pained by this."

"I apologize for not being able to make any contributions as a member of the Abe Cabinet in achieving key policy goals, including the economic recovery and a society where women shine," Obuchi said.

Matsushima, meanwhile, is under fire for distributing hand-held fans, called "uchiwa," to supporters, also in possible violation of the Political Funds Control Law.

Those complaints followed a brouhaha over whether Matsushima should be allowed to wear one of her trademark crimson scarves in parliament — which forbids the wearing of hats, coats and scarves.

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

Political funding scandals are a chronic problem in Japan, but since taking office in late 2012, Abe had managed until now not to lose any of his Cabinet members. The conservative Sankei newspaper ran a headline recently that read "Government's 'Resignation Dominos' Alert."

Grilled by opposition party members in parliament last week, Obuchi apologized for funding irregularities, though she said she had found no evidence of alleged personal use of campaign funds that were paid to a company run by a relative. All purchases using election funds, including for baby clothes, vegetables and other gifts, were for her political activities such as promoting her home prefecture, not her personal use, Obuchi said.

But discrepancies in the accounting for several years have raised a "major doubt," she said.

"This is my own fault and I will focus on investigating so that I can retain trust from my supporters as soon as possible," Obuchi said.

So far, Abe has not made any public comment about Obuchi's resignation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Monday that her replacement would be chosen quickly, "so that the Abe administration can tackle mounting political issues and tackle national politics without delay."

Abe's broad gender agenda includes pushing companies to promote more women, expanding spaces for day care, and other measures intended to help encourage more and improved opportunities for Japan's highly educated but underemployed female work force — moves seen as vital for economic growth as the Japanese population declines and grows older.