TOKYO (Reuters) - In a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his newly appointed trade minister was ensnared in controversy on Thursday after reports that her political funds were spent buying theatre tickets for supporters and goods from relatives’ businesses.
Abe picked Yuko Obuchi, the 40-year-old daughter of a former prime minister, to head the powerful ministry of economy, trade and industry (METI) in a cabinet reshuffle in early September. She was among five women given top jobs, as Abe sought to bolster his government’s popularity with voters.
Regarded as a possible future contender to become Japan’s first woman premier, Obuchi apologised at a parliamentary panel for the controversy after the reports of misuse of funds, possibly violating electoral and political funding laws, hit the news-stands on Thursday.
“I apologise from the bottom of my heart for the fuss created by my private matter,” Obuchi said in response to questions at a panel in the upper house of parliament.
The weekly magazine Shukan Shincho reported that two political support groups in Obuchi’s constituency had spent some 26 million yen (245,600 dollars) on theatre tickets for her backers in 2010 and 2011. Major newspapers also followed up on the allegations made by the magazine.
The Mainichi newspaper also said Obuchi’s political funding oversight body had spent about 3.6 million yen over five years from 2008 at a clothing shop run by her sister’s husband and a design office run by her sister, raising more questions.
Obuchi said that she had instructed the political groups to investigate the matter, adding she believed the payments to her sister’s shop fell within the scope of political activities but that further checks would be made.
Obuchi also said she believes her supporters had paid for the theatre events themselves but was aware it would be a violation of the law if her political groups made additional payments, Kyodo news agency reported.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Thursday that he expected Obuchi would provide an explanation before too long.
After her appointment, Obuchi was given the tough task of trying to gain public trust for the government’s unpopular policy of restarting nuclear reactors following the 2011 Fukushima atomic disaster.
Abe had hoped the telegenic mother of two would be able to ease opposition, but the controversy around her could hinder the governments plan for restarting the reactors, according to some political analysts.
“If this damages Obuchi, the ‘Obuchi effect’ will disappear. The hurdle for restarts will get higher,” said independent political analyst Atsuo Ito.
“I don’t think she will have to resign. But for sure, this is damaging to Abe’s image,” Ito added.
The ruling coalition has a hefty majority in parliament, but the opposition Democratic Party has been targeting new cabinet ministers in parliamentary debate in hopes of denting Abe’s popularity, still relatively robust at around 50 percent.
Abe’s first brief tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007 was marked by scandals among his cabinet members, several of whom were forced to resign, but after his return to office in December 2012, his first cabinet was relatively scandal-free.
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Elaine Lies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore