Cabinet ministers Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima resigned Monday in connection with separate political scandals, dealing a major setback to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Later in the day Abe named their replacements. They are Yoichi Miyazawa, appointed minister of economy, trade and industry, and Yoko Kamikawa, who becomes justice minister.
Miyazawa is an Upper House member from the Liberal Democratic Party and a former official in the Finance Ministry. He is a nephew of the late Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, a noted financial expert.
Kamikawa is an LDP Lower House member who served as the state minister in charge of tackling the falling birthrate during Abe’s first stint as prime minister. With Kamikawa’s appointment, the number of female ministers in Abe’s Cabinet is reduced from five to four.
Launched in December 2012, the Abe administration had been sailing smoothly until last month, when he conducted a reshuffle and appointed five new female ministers, including Obuchi as trade and industry minister and Matsushima as justice minister.
The resignation of the two ministers will severely hurt the Cabinet’s image, after it espoused the elevation of women in society as a key policy.
Abe apparently decided to lose the pair to minimize the political damage. If they were to remain in their posts, they would have been easy targets for opposition lawmakers in the Diet and might have obstructed deliberations on key administration bills.
Matsushima has been accused of violating the election campaign law for distributing free “uchiwa” (rigid handheld fans) to summer festival-goers in her Tokyo district.
Giving goods to voters, even something as apparently trivial as a cheap fan, is prohibited by law.
The alleged violation of the law is considered a serious scandal because Matsushima, as justice minister, oversaw the nation’s prosecutors. On Friday, the Democratic Party of Japan filed a criminal accusation, urging prosecutors to open a legal investigation against her.
Matsushima reiterated her stance during a news conference Monday that she broke no law in handing out the fans but was stepping down nonetheless because she didn’t “want to delay Diet deliberations” by clinging to her post.
“All I wish is for the Abe government to make people and companies nationwide feel the benefit of its ‘Abenomics’ policies as soon as possible,” Matsushima said. “And to make that happen, (Diet deliberations) can no longer be dragged down (because of me).”
She insisted that her action constituted no illegality because the fans she distributed were of little monetary value.
“Shape-wise, yes, I do acknowledge that they resemble uchiwa. But my understanding is that people usually throw them away after an event is over,” Matsushima said.
“So I don’t think giving them out can be considered a problematic donation,” she said, adding that she also didn’t think the fans encouraged people to vote for her.
Meanwhile, industry minister Obuchi said she was resigning over alleged misuse of political funds by two support groups in her home district in Gunma Prefecture.
“I apologize for causing the trouble and raising concern among the public, my longtime supporters, and people in my hometown in Gunma Prefecture,” Obuchi, 40, said at a hastily arranged news conference at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
“By resigning, I want to concentrate on probes into the questions raised, so that I will be able to explain” how the funds were used, she said.
Obuchi’s money scandal surfaced last week, after the weekly Shukan Shincho carried an article over shady and possibly illegal spending by one of the two support groups.
The two groups were both set up to aid Obuchi’s political activities. Among their initiatives, they organized an annual trip to Tokyo for local voters that included a private performance at a leading theater by a popular singer.
One of the two groups collected fees for the event, but opposition lawmakers alleged a discrepancy in the accounting: The recorded contribution by tour participants was substantially smaller than the expenses the two groups reported paying to the theater. The discrepancy was reportedly around ¥26 million in 2010 and 2011.
If the declarations are correct, it would mean the two groups subsidized the trip, a likely violation of the election campaign law which prohibits bribing voters. But if the participants did in fact cover all costs, it would mean inaccuracy in the reporting, a violation of the political funds control law.
Obuchi said more than 2,000 supporters participated every year, paying ¥12,000 each in 2010 and 2011. Obuchi said she is still trying to determine whether the groups actually collected all of the fees.
She said that “there are still too many things” she doesn’t know about how the money was spent and recorded.
Obuchi at the same time admitted she has a moral responsibility for not properly monitoring the political funds of the two groups affiliated with her.
“I must say that there are so many questions” over the handling of money by her support groups, she said.”I sincerely apologize, as a member of the Abe Cabinet, for failing to make any contribution to reviving the economy, or bringing about a society in which women shine, and many other issues,” she said.
Obuchi said she will set up an independent team to probe the spending. The team will include lawyers and tax accountants.
Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers alleged Obuchi’s own political fund management body might have misappropriated political funds for private purposes, not for political activities as required by law.
The management body, Mirai Sangyo Kenkyu Kai, has purchased handkerchiefs and neckties from a company run by her brother-in-law, as well as baby-related goods and large quantities of locally produced leeks. Obuchi said the goods were bought for her political activities, because they were all gifts for people and groups she is associated with.
Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this story