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Farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, embroiled in a political funds scandal, committed suicide Monday at his residence in Tokyo’s Akasaka district.

Matsuoka, 62, a former agriculture ministry official elected to the Lower House from Kumamoto Prefecture, had been under severe pressure by opposition lawmakers to resign over the irregular accounting practices of his political fund management body.

He was slated to attend a Diet session later in the day that was to look into bid-rigging allegations involving the farm ministry and related donations to bodies he was involved with.

His death could deal a further blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had strongly defended him, and Abe’s government in the runup to the House of Councilors election in July.

Matsuoka was found unconscious in his residence at around 12:18 p.m. and was rushed to Keio University Hospital, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a hastily arranged news conference.

He was pronounced dead at 2 p.m., Shiozaki said.

Several suicide notes were found on his desk, police said.

Matsuoka had hanged himself with a rope in his 11th-floor unit in the House of Representatives official residential quarters, according to his secretary and a security police officer who found him, police sources said.

Matsuoka had been drawing opposition flak over donations from corporations linked with the Japan Green Resources Agency, a semigovernmental body affiliated with the Agricultural, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Abe declined comment on the motive for Matsuoka’s apparent suicide, saying it was not appropriate to speculate.

“It was regrettable. I heartily hope his soul will rest in peace and I would like to extend my condolences to his family,” Abe said after visiting the hospital.

According to police sources, Matsuoka left behind a suicide note.

Shiozaki declined comment, however, saying that was a matter of privacy.

The Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, had repeatedly grilled Matsuoka during Diet sessions over the recent scandals involving his office and ministry.

His suicide may further deepen public suspicions about him, but it also means the DPJ has lost a target in Abe’s Cabinet to confront over alleged misdeeds before the Upper House election.

Matsuoka’s political fund management body had declared a total of 143 million yen in rent and utility expenditures for 2001 to 2005 in its annual funding report, although its main base is in a rent-free public office building for Diet members that does not charge for water or electricity.

Matsuoka had refused to give a detailed explanation of the shady expenditures, claiming one was not required under the Political Funds Control Law. Abe and Shiozaki had consistently backed him.

“Mr. Matsuoka had said (the expenditures) were properly declared in accordance with the law,” Shiozaki said Monday afternoon.

Later in the day, Abe appointed Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi acting farm minister.

A formal replacement for Matsuoka has not been decided, Shiozaki said, adding that a political vacuum must be avoided in dealing with agriculture-related issues.

Information from Kyodo added

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