TOKYO: Japan’s high-profile and telegenic industry minister on Monday resigned over claims she misused political funds, including to buy both votes and make-up, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proclaimed gender reform drive.
Yuko Obuchi – who, as a 40-year-old woman, is a rarity in a world of Japanese politics dominated by older men – told a press conference carried live on multiple television channels that parliamentary business had been stalled because of questions over her use of money.
“It is not permissible for me as Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry to have economy and energy policies stalled because of my own problems,” she said. “I will resign and focus on probing what has been called into question,” she told reporters after a 30-minute meeting with Abe.
She is the first ministerial casualty of Abe’s tenure, which began in December 2012 and has been remarkable for its stability. Most recent governments have been beset by scandals and ineptness. Her elevation to the cabinet, along with four other women, was seen as part of Abe’s bid to boost the role of women in society, a move seen as vital to help plug the holes in Japan’s workforce and make better use of a pool of latent talent.
Her promotion was big news when Abe reshuffled his ministerial cards in September, giving a politician with little cabinet experience a powerful portfolio that includes oversight of the energy sector. There were hopes that, as a mother of two, her family-friendly image would be able to persuade a sceptical public of the case for restarting Japan’s mothballed nuclear reactors, amid continuing nervousness over safety following the disaster at Fukushima.
But in Japan’s seniority-based political hierarchy there was reportedly also discontent from men who felt they had served their time on the backbenches, and had been passed over for promotion in favour of an inexperienced woman.
DAMAGING TO GOVERNMENT
Sadakazu Tanigaki, secretary-general and the number two in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Obuchi’s resignation was “extremely regrettable.” “As Ms Obuchi was symbolic of women’s having an active role, I think there will be damage (to the government),” Tanigaki told reporters. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe would move swiftly to replace Obuchi.
Money scandals are not uncommon in Japanese politics, where the pork barrel reigns and rules on spending tend to be slightly opaque, barring little except explicit bribery and vote buying.
Obuchi appeared to have fallen foul of sloppiness in a culture where gift giving is common. The allegations that felled her surround presents to supporters, including cosmetics and theatre trips worth tens of millions of yen (hundreds of thousands of dollars) over several years, which opponents have painted as “vote-buying”.
“Companies and organisations give gifts to people concerned as they engage in economic activities,” she told reporters. “It is part of a politician’s job to socialise with various people and expand their network while engaging in political activities. I believe these costs should be approved as expenses for political activities.”
However, she acknowledged, there were questions over the accounting for the theatre trips, and she promised a full investigation of the matter under the auspices of an independent lawyer.
Asked if she felt her relative youth and her gender had played a role in the way the scandal emerged, she demurred. “I only learnt now that this issue could seen in this light,” she said.