The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has apologised to the nation after two women ministers resigned following a row over political donations, caused in one case by the distribution of paper fans to voters.
The Trade and Industry Minister, Yuko Obuchi, 40, the daughter of a former prime minister and tipped to become Japan’s first female premier, quit after allegations that her support groups misused political funds.
Hours later, the Justice Minister, Midori Matsushima, also resigned. The opposition Democratic Party had filed a criminal complaint against her, accusing her of violating election law by distributing paper fans to voters.
The fans, which cost 80 yen (about 50p), are just sheets of paper stretched across a bamboo or plastic frame, but giving them away may have breached Japan’s strict laws on gifts to voters, a hangover from the once-common practice of vote-buying.
Ms Obuchi and Ms Matsushima were two of five women appointed by Mr Abe in a move intended to show his commitment to promoting women as part of his “Abenomics” strategy to revive the economy.
The scandal is the first to hit Mr Abe in his second term, which began in December 2012. His first stint as Prime Minister in 2006-07 was marred by scandals among his ministers – several quit and one committed suicide. Mr Abe himself resigned after just one year in the face of parliamentary deadlock, sliding support rates and ill health. “I appointed them and as Prime Minister, I bear responsibility,” Mr Abe said of his current crisis. “I deeply apologise to the people of the nation.”
The resignations come as Mr Abe tries to sell two unpopular policies to the electorate – to raise sales tax and to restart the nuclear reactors shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. As head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Ms Obuchi was tasked with selling the plan to restart the reactors to a wary public worried about safety.
Mr Abe must also decide by year-end whether to implement a planned hike in the sales tax to 10 per cent from October 2015. A rise in April to 8 per cent pushed the world’s third-largest economy into its deepest quarterly slump since 2009’s global financial crisis.
But opposition politicians claimed there are other ministers “with regard to whom there are suspicions”. Yukio Edano, the opposition Democratic Party’s second-in-command, added: “We will co-ordinate our actions among opposition parties, point out the problems and ask for explanations about the other ministers.” He did not identify the ministers nor explain how the opposition planned to seek any explanations.
Further resignations could raise doubts about Mr Abe’s own future. Defence Minister Akinori Eto, also appointed in September, has faced questions from the opposition over his political funds.
Mr Abe moved quickly to fill the ministers’ positions, telling reporters that he had picked the Harvard-educated Yoichi Miyazawa, 64, a former vice-Economics Minister and the nephew of the late Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, to replace Ms Obuchi. He selected Yoko Kamikawa, 61, a former Gender Equality Minister, for the justice portfolio. She also studied at Harvard.
“They are trying to limit the damage by getting rid of those [two] quickly,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a political science professor at Nihon University. “But Abe’s support will decline and … policy implementation will not go smoothly,” he said, adding the situation would become far tougher if other ministers also quit.