National / Politics

Free incense sticks cloud future of Japan's economy minister and TPP chief Toshimitsu Motegi

Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s point man for a massive Pacific trade pact is defending his job after giving incense sticks to voters, the latest example of how even the whiff of scandal can threaten policymaking in Japan.

Toshimitsu Motegi, the economy minister who last month shepherded the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to an 11-way agreement, is facing calls to resign over allegations he breached campaign laws. The accusation: handing out incense sticks.

Motegi said that a secretary distributed the incense — an everyday item that many Japanese burn in their homes to honor deceased relatives — and denied breaking the law. “There’s nothing illegal in this matter,” he told reporters at a regular briefing Friday.

While such gifts may seem trifling, other lawmakers have resigned after falling foul of the law in similar ways. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera gave up his seat almost two decades ago after it emerged that he had presented incense to constituents. Former Justice Minister Midori Matsushima stepped down from that post in 2014 after handing out paper fans.

“It’s because of corrupt practices that the rules became stricter and stricter over time,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, who said Motegi could be forced out. “Either you change the rules, or you should know them.”

Even so, losing Motegi would be unlikely to affect Japan’s policy on the TPP deal, given that he is the third minister to work on it. One of his predecessors, Akira Amari, resigned two years ago over a corruption scandal.

Motegi’s fate may ultimately depend on details. Both Onodera and Matsushima had their names printed on their handouts, but Motegi says he didn’t. The law applies even in cases where recipients would’ve been able to infer a link to a particular politician, so opposition lawmakers are keeping up the attack.

Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of Kibo no To (Party of Hope), called Tuesday for Motegi’s resignation. A group of opposition parties were set to discuss the issue at a meeting later Friday.

The fragmented opposition may gain little traction from the attacks. Their focus on a separate scandal over alleged misuse of public funds to benefit Abe’s associates has succeeded at times in damaging his support rates, without bolstering their own.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party scored a convincing win in the October snap election and he is expected to win another term as party leader in September, potentially making him the longest-serving prime minister in history.

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