Minister’s suicide saves face for Japanese prime minister?

By Lars Nicolaysen


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Tokyo : The suicide of Japan's farm minister Monday harkens back to the country's feudal past, political observers said. They compared the death of Toshikatsu Matsuoka to the samurai practice of hara-kiri, or ritualised suicide.

They speculated that the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Matuoka hanged himself to protect his boss, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as Matsuoka was embroiled in corruption scandals and an election approached.

Abe had long defended his farm minister and insisted he stay in office in the wake of allegations that contractors had made political donations in bid rigging for public construction projects as well as questions over bookkeeping practices in his office.

Matsuoka, 62, was found by his secretary and a security officer hanging by a rope in his residence at a Tokyo apartment building for members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, media reports said, citing police. He was taken unconscious to a hospital where he was pronounced dead a few hours later, the government added.

"It was regrettable," Abe told reporters when he visited the hospital where Matsuoka died. "I cannot help being really embarrassed. I heartily hope his soul will rest in peace."

Matsuoka's suicide, however, saved Abe from an uncomfortable political situation.

Matsuoka had avoided providing explanations of the charges against him but was to have appeared Monday afternoon at a parliamentary committee meeting where he was expected to be confronted with questions about the scandal.

Now, however, Matsuoka has saved Abe from potential embarrassment related to the panel appearance and the increasing pressure on the prime minister to sack Matsuoka as the July elections for the upper house of parliament approached.

For Abe, it wasn't the first scandal.

In December, three months after Abe took office, two members of his administration resigned within a week of one another. The minister of administrative reform stepped down after admitting that some of his political supporters had falsified financial records in a scandal over tax money misappropriated for party financing.

The head of a government tax panel also resigned after the married politician rented an upscale, government-subsidized apartment for him and his mistress.

The scandals hurt the public approval ratings of Abe's government, and on Monday, ahead of news of Matsuoka's suicide, a new poll showed support for the government had fallen to a new low this month, 32 percent, down 11 points from last month.

Matsuoka, like the two ministers who resigned in December, was hand-picked by Abe, who has been accused of being more concerned with putting friends into government posts who helped him become prime minister rather than those who would be the most qualified. The opposition accused Abe of incompetence and a lack of leadership.

The criticism hit a politician who is seeking to portray himself as a strong leader concerned with strengthening patriotism and traditional values in Japan.

The scandals surrounding Matsuoka, however, were providing fuel to the opposition's criticism. Now, Matsuoka himself has swept the allegations aside.

Abe, who plans to travel next week to Germany for a summit of the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, was expected to return to Japan to find the tumult over Matsuoka settled, but his government is facing fire from other quarters.

Political observers said the reason for the drop in the administration's approval ratings was due to the admission by the Social Insurance Agency that it turned up 50 million unidentified payment records. Retirees now fear that its failure to keep proper records could affect their pensions.

In the meantime, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, face a hard fight to keep their majority in the upper house in the July 22 voting.