Two of Abe’s female ministers resign over separate scandals

by and

Staff Writers

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

  • Max Erimo

    Congratulations to Mr. Abe, who in one foil swoop eliminated potential candidates for his job. Ms Obuchi’s name has been brandished around as his successor. First he gave her the impossible job of selling nuclear power plants and then the more impossible job of selling female empowerment in Japan. Can’t do that job then you can’t run the country, right?
    Then the timely leaks of financial mishandlings.
    I love political drama.

  • Bodewell

    Newsflash! Corruption in the Japanese Government. Read all about it!

  • Jeffrey

    “Giving goods to voters, even something as apparently trivial as a cheap fan, is prohibited by law.”

    Good god. Probably half of all Diet members are connected to rightist groups and/or the yakuza (probably nearing 90% of the LDP), and this is what they lose office over? Worse than convicting Capone for tax evasion.

  • Toolonggone

    I don’t think it’s over. This is just the beginning of political soap opera in the Abe Cabinet. Stay tuned!

  • rossdorn

    Apart from the obvious: When it comes to politics in Japan, this is one thing where Abe is almost innocent…
    Who is he supposed to appoint? Where should he take people from that have nothing in their past? If a minister has enemies that think this is a nice opportunity to get back at him, then this is what happens.

    The hypocrisy as usual is in the media that treat everything as if it where a scandal and just business as usual….
    Japanese readers actually believe, that this one or that oine must be a great newspaper helping to clean up Japan from the few bad apples. The really believe that, just ask around….

  • GBR48

    With regard to the Obuchi case. If politicians are held accountable for everything their staff do, then given £50k and a couple of years, I could happily manipulate Japanese government policy single-handedly, and so could anyone else. This looks like someone, somewhere, decided to apply a bit of pressure on the Government. How many similar traps have been set within the Japanese political system, allowing those behind them to request a direction for government policy, or fire a shot across the bows of any politicians who don’t do what they want?

    You are responsible for what you do, not for what people do in your name. Even in politics.

    This is a not a party issue, either. All politicians are equally susceptible to such manipulation.

  • http://registeredalien.weebly.com gpiper

    Just a few weeks ago Yuko Obuchi’s name was being fielded as a possible future female prime minister, which would be a revolution in this country. Involvement in a scandal, guilty or not, shows just how accurate forecasts like that are. I mean, with a scandal to her name Obuchi is right in the power zone that has always been monopolized by males. Way to go!! A criminal record, or suspicion of criminal behavior is the cement that makes a Japanese leader. It’s a brand.