In blow to Japan's Abe, trade and justice ministers both resign over election fund allegations



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TOKYO — Japan's trade and justice ministers resigned Monday after accusations they misused campaign funds in the biggest setback so far for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative administration.

The two ministers were among five women Abe named to his Cabinet in a reshuffle early last month, part of an effort to promote women in politics and business that is a key pillar of his government's economic revival policies.

Yuko Obuchi, daughter of a former prime minister and a rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, resigned early Monday as trade minister, saying she needed to focus on an investigation into discrepancies in accounting for election funds. She did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Justice Minister Midori Matsushima resigned after the opposition Democratic Party of Japan filed a criminal complaint against her over distribution of hand-held fans, or "uchiwa." Matsushima is also facing complaints over using parliament-provided housing while keeping security guards at her private residence in downtown Tokyo.

Speaking to reporters shortly after he accepted Matsushima's resignation, a somber Abe told reporters he also was responsible because he appointed the two women to his Cabinet.

"I deeply apologize to the public," Abe said.

Political funding scandals are a chronic problem in Japan, where gifts to constituents were banned to prevent vote buying.

"These rules are in place precisely because vote-buying using gifts used to be very common in Japan and still is according to some accounts in the rural areas," said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

The types of gifts and sums of money at the center of the latest allegations are relatively trivial compared with the record of previous governments. But the rules are well-known, and possible violations by a minister of justice did not set well, Nakano said.

Two other female Cabinet members known as Abe's close allies on the right have been criticized for suspected ties with racist groups. Such scandals have marred his efforts to encourage Japan to accept more women in leadership positions.

Obuchi, who as trade minister is overseeing the cleanup and decommissioning of the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, said a thorough investigation into the problems with her campaign funds would interfere with her duties.

"I apologize for not being able to make any contributions as a member of the Abe Cabinet in achieving key policy goals, including the economic recovery and a society where women shine," Obuchi said.

The Cabinet resignations are the first for Abe since he took office in late 2012.

Lawmakers of the opposition DPJ, which lost power to Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party in late 2012, are seeking whatever leverage they can against the LDP's overwhelming parliamentary majority.

Hence the focus on such issues as presents of leeks, baby clothes, neckties and fans by lawmakers to their supporters. The "uchiwa" distributed by Matsushima reportedly cost a mere 80 yen (75 cents) each, but are a possible violation of the Political Funds Control Law.

Matsushima contends they should be allowed as campaign "leaflets."

Past political funding scandals often have involved much larger sums of money, and in one case a stash of gold bullion pulled from an LDP lawmaker's offices.

Analysts said Obuchi's troubles stem from a campaign apparatus set up decades ago when her grandfather and then her father were in office.

She apologized for funding irregularities, though she said she had found no evidence of alleged personal use of campaign funds that were paid to a company run by a relative. All purchases using election funds, including for baby clothes, vegetables and other gifts, were for her political activities such as promoting her home prefecture, not her personal use, Obuchi said.

But discrepancies in the accounting for several years have raised a "major doubt," she said.

"This is my own fault and I will focus on investigating so that I can retain trust from my supporters as soon as possible," Obuchi said.

Asked if he would try to replace Obuchi and Matsushima with other female lawmakers, Abe said only that he would choose "suitable" people, and planned to make that choice before the day's end.

Abe's broad gender agenda includes pushing companies to promote more women, expanding spaces for day care, and other measures intended to help encourage more and improved opportunities for Japan's highly educated but underemployed female workforce. Such moves are vital for economic growth as Japan's population declines and ages.

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