Scandal-tainted farm minister axed

Akagi first to take fall over bloc's poll loss

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Scandal-tainted agriculture minister Norihiko Akagi was sacked Wednesday for contributing to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s historic defeat in the House of Councilors election.

Akagi, 48, has been under fire for questionable accounting of his political funds — a factor that many consider played a significant role in the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc’s shattering defeat Sunday, and pressure from his fellow LDP lawmakers to resign had been intensifying since the election.

“There have been a series of media reports about me. It is all too clear that the reports affected the campaign and became one of the reasons of the ruling coalition’s defeat. I feel very sorry about it,” Akagi told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence after tendering his resignation to Shinzo Abe.

Abe immediately directed Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi to double as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries for the time being.

Akagi’s resignation, criticized by many even from within the LDP as coming far too late, is likely to deal another blow to the already tattered Abe government. Pressure is expected to mount on Abe himself regarding his responsibility for appointing Akagi to begin with and for failing to oust him at an earlier stage despite the scandal.

“The prime minister appointed him and the responsibility rests with (the prime minister) himself,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said at the news conference in which he announced Akagi’s resignation.

Although Akagi said he decided to tender his resignation Tuesday night, he was effectively dismissed by Abe. Akagi admitted he had received a telephone call from Abe’s secretary earlier in the day to meet with the prime minister.

Abe told reporters Wednesday evening that he concluded Akagi’s office lacked the ability to manage political funds. “Based on the judgment, I told Mr. Akagi to revamp his office and make a fresh start,” he said.

Abe also admitted he was responsible for Akagi’s appointment, but stressed he himself had to stay in office to avoid a “political vacuum.”

Abe said Tuesday night he planned to reshuffle the Cabinet, “including minister Akagi.”

With Akagi’s exit, the Cabinet has lost four ministers since Abe took office in September.

Genichiro Sata quit as minister of administrative reforms in December over charges of misusing political funds. In late May, farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka committed suicide after he drew flak over questionable accounting by one of his political funding groups and a bid-rigging scandal threatened to envelop him.

Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma quit in July under heavy criticism for remarks derided as justifying the U.S. atomic bombings in 1945.

Akagi was named farm minister June 1 following Matsuoka’s suicide.

LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa confirmed that numerous party members thought Akagi should have stepped down earlier. “The (next) Cabinet must not repeat such matters,” Nakagawa said. “I think that regarding the reshuffling of the Cabinet, transparency on ‘politics and money’ should be the fundamental condition.”

Despite angry calls from opposition parties and the public for Akagi to disclose the details of his office fees, he has refused to offer an explanation. He also reiterated his intention to remain farm minister up until Tuesday.

“I think (Akagi) should explain (the details of his office fees) as much as possible” even after he has stepped down, Nakagawa said.

He added that the LDP has decided to aim for another revision of the Political Funds Control Law — which was just revised in the last ordinary Diet session to increase transparency but was slammed as being full of loopholes — in an attempt to answer the public’s criticism.

Kazuo Kitagawa, secretary general of New Komeito, also criticized Akagi for staying in office and said his axing “couldn’t be helped. There is no doubt that (the suspicion over Akagi’s office fees) was a major factor in the crushing defeat in the Upper House election,” he said.

“I regret that I couldn’t make myself understood because my explanation (about the scandal) was not enough,” Akagi told reporters later in the day. “Some people may say (the resignation came too late). I will take such criticism seriously.”

“The fact that four ministers have been replaced in not even a year means (the Cabinet) is in a state of emergency,” said Yoshiaki Takaki, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan. “The Cabinet is unstable, and as the one who appointed the ministers, Abe bears responsibility and (the DPJ) will push for his resignation.”

Meanwhile, Mikio Aoki, head of the LDP’s Upper House caucus, stepped down to take responsibility for the election drubbing. LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa has also offered to resign since the election.

Information from Kyodo added