TOKYO (Reuters) - In a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s newly appointed trade and industry minister plans to resign following reports that some of her support groups misused political funds, Japanese media said on Saturday.
Yuko Obuchi, the 40-year-old daughter of a former premier, has told people close to Abe that she plans to resign and take responsibility for a furor she caused, the Nikkei newspaper said, without citing any sources.
“What I have to do right now is to conduct a thorough investigation into the political funding issue,” Obuchi told reporters on Saturday, when asked whether she intended to quit.
Obuchi also said she did not plan to meet the prime minister on Saturday, when he was due to return from an Asia-Europe summit in Italy.
Abe tapped Obuchi, a telegenic mother of two young children, less than two months ago to head the powerful METI. She was one of five women Abe chose in a cabinet reshuffle in an effort to bolster his popularity by showing his commitment to promoting women.
Regarded as a possible future contender to become Japan’s first woman prime minister, Obuchi apologized at a parliamentary panel on Thursday in the wake of the reports of the misuse of funds, which could violate electoral and political funding laws.
“I feel that ignorance is no excuse,” Obuchi said on Friday in response to repeated questions at a parliamentary panel.
A Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) spokesman said he was unaware of any plans by Obuchi to quit. The ministry said later that her visit to central Japan on Saturday was canceled to avoid expected “disorder”. No one answered the phone at her political office.
The weekly magazine Shukan Shincho reported that two political support groups in Obuchi’s constituency had spent some 26 million yen ($245,600) on theater tickets for her backers in 2010 and 2011. Major newspapers also followed up on the allegations made by the magazine.
She said she believed her supporters had paid for the theater events themselves but was aware it would be a violation of the law if her political groups made additional payments.
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 soft-spoken Obuchi would be able to ease opposition to nuclear power, but the controversy around her could hinder the government’s plan for restarting the reactors, according to some political analysts.
The ruling coalition has a hefty majority in parliament, but the opposition Democratic Party (DPJ) has been targeting new cabinet ministers in parliamentary debates in the hope of denting Abe’s popularity, still relatively robust at around 50 percent.
The DPJ on Friday filed a criminal complaint against Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, accusing her of violating the election law by distributing paper fans to voters in her district, domestic media reported. The DPJ has demanded that Matsushima resign.
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 and one who committed suicide, but after his return to office in December 2012, his first cabinet was relatively scandal-free.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Writing by William Mallard and Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Dean Yates and Clarence Fernandez