In a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, trade minister Yuko Obuchi was grilled Thursday by the opposition camp over an allegation that her political support groups misused funds.
The furor erupted after the weekly Shukan Shincho ran an article Thursday saying that Obuchi’s support group and a political group in her district in Gunma Prefecture paid around ¥26 million in 2010 and 2011 to shoulder some of the costs of theater tickets for her backers.
In its political funding reports, Obuchi’s support group recorded about ¥3.73 million in 2010 and some ¥3.69 million in 2011 as income paid by backers who participated in annual theater-viewing events. But the group and the Gunma-based political group recorded some ¥16.88 million in 2010 and about ¥16.96 million in 2011 as expenditures for tickets and dining, the magazine said.
If the ¥26 million was indeed used to shoulder some of the supporters’ ticket costs, it would likely break the election law, which bans patronage of voters in one’s home district.
“I sincerely apologize for causing trouble,” Obuchi told the Upper House.
“I first learned about the gap between income and expenditures through the article,” she said. “I’ve asked the supporters group and related bodies to check whether they have collected the actual costs from every participant.”
According to Obuchi, the two political bodies have been organizing annual theater-viewing events for supporters since 2007. She said each paid a fee of around ¥10,000.
As for an another claim by the magazine that her fund management body bought neckties and handkerchiefs from a boutique run by her brother-in-law, Obuchi said she believes it is within the boundaries of allowable political activities and denied claims that she is mixing business with personal affairs.
Even so, she said she will look into both cases carefully.
“I have the responsibility to check these daily matters as I am the head of the political funds group. But seeing the news reports, I believe I wasn’t doing enough checking,” Obuchi said, referring to the Shukan Shincho article and followup reports by other media outlets.
Obuchi, 40, is the youngest minister in Abe’s Cabinet and has often been touted as a potential candidate for Japan’s first female prime minister. She took over the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in the Sept. 3 Cabinet reshuffle.
This isn’t the first scandal to beset a women in Abe’s Cabinet. Justice Minister Midori Matsushima was recently grilled by the opposition camp about distributing free “uchiwa” (paper fans) to people at summer festivals in her Tokyo district.