METI chief Obuchi to resign over funds scandal

Kyodo, Reuters

Economy, Trade and Industry minister Yuko Obuchi intends to resign over shady irregularities in the political funds reports of her support groups, a government source said.

The loss of Obuchi, a rising star in the LDP who was being groomed as a possible future prime minister, would deal a huge blow to the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a time when it is promoting women’s empowerment as a pillar of its policy initiatives.

Obuchi, a 40-year-old mother of two and the daughter of a former prime minister, became chief of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as one of five women appointed in the Sept. 3 Cabinet reshuffle.

She would be the first minister to step down over a scandal since Abe took office in December 2012.

The source said Obuchi intended to take responsibility for the scandal and finalize her course of action in a meeting with Abe as early as Saturday.

She has told people close to Abe that she plans to quit and would discuss the matter when Abe returned from the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Italy, the Nikkei newspaper said.

A METI spokesman said he was unaware of any plans by Obuchi to quit. No one answered the phone at her office.

The ministry said later in a media notice that she would cancel a visit to central Japan planned for Saturday to avoid “disorder.”

Obuchi told people close to Abe on Friday of her plan to take responsibility for the furor, the Nikkei said, without citing any sources.

“I am investigating (the funding issue), but I think there is no convincing explanation,” the daily quoted her as saying.

Abe tapped Obuchi less than two months ago to take the reins at METI. Abe elevated her in a Cabinet reshuffle designed to raise his popularity by showing how committed he now is to promoting women.

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the fuss created by my private matter,” Obuchi said on Thursday in response to questions in raised in an Upper House panel about the campaign funds.

In response to repeated questions from the panel, she said Friday, “I feel that ignorance is no excuse.”

The weekly magazine Shukan Shincho reported that two political support groups in Obuchi’s constituency had spent some ¥26 million ($245,600) on theater tickets for her backers in 2010 and 2011. Major newspapers also followed up on the allegations made by the magazine.

The Mainichi newspaper said Obuchi’s political funding oversight body had spent about ¥3.6 million over five years from 2008 at a clothing shop run by her sister’s husband and a design office run by her sister.

Obuchi said she had instructed the political groups to investigate the matter, adding she believed the payments to her sister’s shop had fallen within the scope of political activities but that further checks would be made.

She said she believed her supporters had paid for the theater events themselves but was aware it would break the law if her political groups made additional payments.

After her appointment, Obuchi was given the tough task of trying to win the public over the government’s unpopular drive to restart the nation’s nuclear reactors, which were idled in light of the 2011 core meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture.

Abe had hoped the telegenic Obuchi would be able to ease opposition to nuclear power, but the controversy around her could hinder his plan for the reactors, many of which near the end of their life spans, some political analysts said.

The ruling coalition has a hefty majority in the Diet, but the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has been targeting new Cabinet ministers in Diet debates to dent Abe’s popularity, which is still relatively strong at around 50 percent.

Abe’s first brief tenure as prime minister in 2006 and 2007 was marked by scandals in his Cabinet. Several ministers were forced to resign. After his return to office in December 2012, his first Cabinet was relatively scandal-free.