National / Politics

Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai resigns over wife's alleged election law breach

by Reiji Yoshida and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

In another blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai tendered his resignation Thursday after a magazine alleged that his wife violated election laws when she campaigned for her Upper House seat.

The resignation marks the second departure from Abe’s Cabinet in just a week after trade minister Isshu Sugawara resigned Friday amid a gift scandal.

The pair are both close aides to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, one of a handful of politicians considered potential candidates to succeed Abe, and their resignations are likely to damage Suga’s reputation as a skillful master of power politics in Nagatacho, Japan’s political epicenter.

Thus the scandals could affect the competition to succeed Abe, whose term as the head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires in September 2021.

The two ex-ministers are believed to have won their Cabinet positions in September thanks to their connections to Suga.

“We must take to heart the harsh criticism regarding Kawai’s resignation so soon after Sugawara’s exit,” Suga said at his daily news conference.

“The Cabinet will work harder to fulfill our duties,” he added.

Later in the day, Upper House lawmaker Masako Mori, 55, who previously served as the state minister in charge of tackling the declining birthrate, was appointed to take over as justice minister.

Opposition lawmakers boycotted all the Diet sessions planned for Thursday to protest the resignation of Kawai, who left his post with few explanations about the alleged violation.

The confusion in the Diet could further delay deliberations at some committees, including the ones for discussing constitutional revisions proposed by the LDP.

Anri Kawai, the former minister’s wife, was elected to the Upper House from a Hiroshima district in July.

According to the weekly Shukan Bunshun, Anri Kawai’s staff paid ¥30,000 per day to female employees who broadcast slogans from campaign cars, exceeding the legal limit of ¥15,000 per day. His secretary also gave gifts to local voters this month, according to the weekly.

Speaking to reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office, Kawai, also a close aide to Abe, said he hasn’t confirmed the allegations. But he said he has already submitted a letter of resignation to Abe to avoid the “loss of people’s trust” in the Justice Ministry.

“I’m determined to find out what happened and it is my responsibility to offer an explanation,” he said.

Abe accepted his resignation, he added.

Kawai was first elected to the Lower House in 1996.

According to media reports, Suga strongly supported Anri Kawai during the election campaign.

The LDP fielded two candidates — Anri Kawai and Upper House heavyweight Kensei Mizote — in the two-seat Hiroshima district, splitting the votes of LDP supporters.

Mizote lost his seat as a result. Suga’s backing of Anri Kawai was rumored to be retaliation from Abe because Mizote has been considered a long-time political enemy.

Meanwhile, Mizote’s defeat significantly damaged the reputation of LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who heads an intraparty faction to which Mizote also belonged.

Kishida is another politician considered to be a possible successor to Abe, and thus a potential rival to Suga. But in the Upper House election, four members of Kishida’s faction — including Mizote— lost their seats, tarnishing his potential candidacy for party leadership.

When a prime minister selects lawmakers to join the Cabinet, officials usually thoroughly check their backgrounds in advance so the administration won’t be hit by scandals. But this time, Abe may have prioritized giving prestigious posts to those who had contributed to his administration, overlooking rumored scandals involving the two.

When asked whether enough had been done to vet their candidates, Suga didn’t give a clear answer, saying he believes that “the government did what it could” in terms of gathering information and doing background checks.

Mori is a mother of two and a lawyer specializing in consumer law. She played an instrumental role in the passing of a secrecy law that proved to be controversial with the public.

Hailing from Fukushima Prefecture, she is currently serving her third term as an Upper House lawmaker.

Speaking to reporters Thursday at her first news conference in the post, Mori said that “judicial government has its foundation in the trust of the people … it’s of utmost importance to ensure that we have the people’s trust,” echoing comments by Abe and Suga.

She refused to comment regarding the sudden departure of her predecessor, as well as the resignation of two ministers within a week, saying that the decision to resign was theirs and that she was “not in a position to comment.”

As a lawyer and a woman, she added, she “hopes to focus her efforts on protecting the rights of women and children,” touching on issues such as child abuse and people who do not pay child support.

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