The departure of trade and industry minister Yuko Obuchi, if it comes to pass, will be a bad omen for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is attempting to focus on two key issues before the extraordinary Diet session ends in November: economic recovery and the empowerment of women in Japanese society.
On Saturday, Obuchi reportedly decided to resign over shady spending by her political support groups, according to Kyodo News. She was reportedly scheduled to meet with Abe the same day to discuss the decision but later told reporters in Tokyo the meeting was off.
The final decision will be made after consulting with the prime minister, Kyodo said.
Obuchi’s resignation will likely help the opposition turn the remaining Diet sessions into an opportunity to grill Abe’s newest Cabinet members about alleged misdeeds.
When he reshuffled his Cabinet on Sept. 3, Abe tapped five women to put a fresh face on his administration and once again underline his new policy of promoting the status of women here.
But all five, including Obuchi, have gotten caught up in scandals.
Justice Minister Midori Matsushima has been accused of allegedly breaking the election campaign law by distributing “uchiwa” (handheld fans) to voters in her constituency with her caricature, name and title printed on them.
Eriko Yamatani, chair of the National Public Safety Commission, has been criticized for her alleged ties with Zaitokukai, a racist, ultra-rightwing group that opposes and harasses ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
Meanwhile, both gender issue minister Haruko Arimura and internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi have come under fire for their conservative views on gender issues and their admiration of the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals and Japan’s war-dead.
Until recently, Obuchi was the only female minister considered to be scandal-free.
Her alleged misdeeds surfaced at a time when people have become more suspicious than ever about the effectiveness of “Abenomics,” Abe’s economic plan based on aggressive monetary easing, the usual fiscal spending and vows of structural reforms needed to expand growth.
“Abenomics” boosted stock prices in Tokyo and weakened the value of the yen against the dollar, which was predicted to theoretically boost Japan’s exports.
But the rising costs of imports, in particular fossil fuels, have damaged people’s living standards because their buying power is falling in relation to their presumably rising wages.
Meanwhile, exports failed to grow as earlier predicted because many manufacturing companies have already moved their production plants overseas to avoid currency exchange risks.
Accordingly, people’s confidence in Abe’s economic polices has started to decline recently. According to the latest NHK poll, conducted between Oct. 11 and 13, the approval rating for his Cabinet has fallen 6 points to 52 percent.
“It’s true people’s perceptions have started changing recently” to focus more on the negative effects of Abenomics, a senior government official said Friday.
In December, Abe will face the difficult decision on whether to complete the doubling of the consumption tax rate to 10 percent next October.Choosing a successor to Obuchi will be another tough challenge for Abe.
Her chosen successor will need to be appointed soon, and it will be the new appointee’s call to decide whether to reactivate some of the 48 commercial nuclear reactors across the country that have been offline since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Obuchi, a daughter of late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, has been a rising star among female lawmakers, and has sometimes been touted as the most likely candidate to be appointed Japan’s first female prime minister.
Abe apparently tried to use her popularity to soften public resistance to his policy of restarting the nation’s nuclear plants.
As far as public image is concerned, it will be very difficult for him to find a better industry minister than Obuchi.