Japanese minister to resign over secret loan



A bitter political dispute about the legal status of Japanese religious groups will claim a high-powered victim today when the Justice Minister, Tomoharu Tazawa, resigns after allegations concerning a secret loan from a powerful Buddhist organisation.

The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported on Friday that Mr Tazawa, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) member of the upper house of the Japanese Diet, had done a back-room deal with political opponents to avoid being questioned about the 200,000 yen (pounds 1,250) loan from Rissho Koseikai, a lay organisation which has links with the LDP. In return for dropping their questions, the Justice Minister allegedly promised members of Reform of Heisei, an upper house grouping which includes members of the opposition Shinshinto (New Frontier Party), that he would resist government proposals to revise the Religious Corporation Law, which is being debated in the lower house of the Diet.

Mr Tazawa denied the charges on Friday, as an investigation was launched on the orders of the Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama. Over the weekend, however, it became clear that he could not survive. He will be replaced by Hiroshi Miyazawa, another LDP member of the upper house, and the brother of the former Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa.

More than 180,000 religious groups are registered under the Religious Corporation Law, which grants them lucrative exemptions from income and property tax. The coalition government, in which Mr Tazawa's LDP is the leading partner, has been considering its revision for six months, since the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, universally attributed to the apocalyptic Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which became rich through property deals and donations.

But the proposed legislation has provoked strong opposition from Buddhist and Christian organisations, and has become the focus of a party political row.

The wealth and grass-roots influence acquired by Japan's religious groups also allow them to wield considerable power among voters. Shinshinto, which stands a good chance of defeating the LDP in the next general election, derives huge electoral benefits from its association with Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organisation supported by 8 million families nationwide.

Many Shinshinto politicians view the proposed revisions to the law as an attack on their core supporters - hence their eagerness to enlist the sympathies of Mr Tazawa.

Despite denying allegations of a secret deal, Mr Tazawa admits the loan, which he has repaid in full. However, he broke Cabinet regulations which require ministers to disclose assets and loans.