National / Politics

Japan trade chief Isshu Sugawara exits amid allegations he broke election campaign law

by Satoshi Sugiyama and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

Trade minister Isshu Sugawara resigned on Friday, a month and a half after assuming his post, following an accusation in a weekly tabloid that he violated an election campaign law.

“I feel deeply ashamed of myself to resign in the middle of my tenure amid mounting pending issues. I apologize,” Sugawara, 57, told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Friday morning. “There are various reports regarding my political activities in my district.”

He added: “It’s not my intention to stall the Diet and deliberation of bills because of my problems, as debates in each committee pick up speed starting today.”

Sugawara submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the same day.

The move comes after the Shukan Bunshun, a weekly tabloid, reported Thursday that one of his secretaries gave what is known as “incense money,” a monetary condolence gift at a funeral, to the family of a deceased supporter in his district in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. The gift was allegedly given under Sugawara’s name.

Hiroshi Kajiyama, a former regional revitalization minister who represents a district in Ibaraki Prefecture, was assigned to the post Friday afternoon.

“I’ll be dealing with various issues with my utmost strength,” Kajiyama said Friday evening.

The magazine published what it claimed to be a photo of the secretary bowing and handing over an envelope containing ¥20,000 at a funeral site on Oct. 17. If true, the action is a violation of the Public Offices Election Act and carries a fine of up to ¥500,000. The law stipulates that the giving of gifts by politicians to people in their districts is illegal, whether or not there is an election.

The magazine anonymously quoted a source with ties to a funeral hall who said that secretaries sending condolence gifts on the orders of Sugawara has been systematic.

Sugawara’s resignation is sure to empower opposition parties, which will likely cast blame on Abe.

“I bear the responsibility of having appointed Sugawara to his position, and for that, I offer my deepest apologies to the people of Japan,” Abe said Friday before bowing his head slightly in apology.

Outside Japan, the departure will cast uncertainty, at least temporarily, over trade ministry maneuvers amid a bilateral trade row with South Korea and multinational negotiations pertaining to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal.

Sugawara was tapped to be the minister of economy, trade and industry, succeeding Hiroshige Seko, in Abe’s Cabinet reshuffle in September. He is known to have a close relationship with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

At his daily news conference, Suga confirmed that Sugawara’s resignation had been accepted by Abe and repeated his words of apology to the people.

“The focus of the Abe administration will be on reflecting on what happened and regaining the public’s trust,” he added.

When asked whether Sugawara had admitted to the allegations put forth by the magazine, Suga avoided giving details, merely stating that he presumes Sugawara “would give an explanation” in due time.

Opposition lawmakers on Thursday had put pressure on Sugawara to resign from the Cabinet post. If Sugawara doesn’t deliver a clear explanation regarding the allegations by the magazine, the largest opposition force said it would boycott parliamentary sessions in both chambers of the Diet, Kyodo News quoted Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, as saying.

Azumi said Friday that the responsibility rests with Abe and that he will press for his accountability during a session of the Lower House Budget Committee.

The scandal “definitely applies some level of damage” on the Abe administration given that “Sugawara was a star minister that Abe had a lot of hope for,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of Japanese politics at Nihon University’s College of Law.

“That opens up Abe’s administration to the criticism that they’re slacking — that their choice” was made too lightly, he added.

“It also is damaging to Suga as well, given that Abe allegedly gave Sugawara his position without any qualms because he was Suga’s recommendation,” Iwai said.

He added that with Suga rising in the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party as a potential future candidate for party leadership, the scandal could play a role in the contest to succeed Abe.

But because Sugawara handed in his resignation so quickly, the Cabinet may have managed to contain the damage, Iwai said.

“There are a lot of issues related to the trade ministry that need to be discussed in the current Diet session,” and with Abe wanting to push forward constitutional debate at the Diet too, “Sugawara and his scandals would get in the way of pushing forward Diet debate,” Iwai said.

“The Cabinet had no choice but to act swiftly” to contain the damage, which they seem to have successfully done, he added.

The weekly magazine this month has reported a series of misconduct allegations against Sugawara, including claims that he abused his secretaries verbally and gave expensive melons and seafood to local constituents for years.

Accusations of illegal donations of condolence gifts to voters have surfaced from time to time. In 2000, Itsunori Onodera, a Lower House member, lost his job after he distributed sticks of incense to his constituents. He was elected again in 2003 and twice served as defense minister under Abe.

In 2018, then-economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi admitted that his secretaries had handed out incense sticks to his constituents. However, he denied that he had told his secretaries to do so and asserted his name wasn’t attributed to the gifts. Motegi now serves as foreign minister.

It’s unlikely that Sugawara will have to quit as a lawmaker over this scandal for now, given that the provision of incense money by politicians has never lead to criminal charges, and because Sugawara’s gifting of delicacies happened years ago, Iwai said.

Sugawara, born in Tokyo and first elected to the Lower House in 2003, previously served as a deputy industry minister from December 2012 to September 2013.

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