Japan Sees Second Cabinet Member Resignation in a Week

Emi Nobuhiro and Isabel Reynolds

(Bloomberg) -- Prospects for an election in Japan before year-end appeared to fade after a series of scandals and gaffes in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new cabinet, with a second minister resigning in the space of a week.

Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai submitted his resignation Thursday after the Shukan Bunshun magazine reported that he was linked to illegal payments to campaign staff. His departure follows the resignation last Friday of then Economy Minister Isshu Sugawara after the same publication said in a separate article that he had made gifts to constituents in violation of campaign laws. Both were appointed in September.

“He has overcome scandals in the past, but I don’t think he’s in a strong enough position at this point to ignore them and hold an election,” said Katsuhiko Nakamura, senior executive director at Asian Forum Japan, a Tokyo-based think tank. “He’s not a lame duck yet, but his approval rating is not as high as it once was. So I think the timing is a bit difficult.”

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While no general election need be held until 2021, talk of a December poll had swirled in recent weeks, partly because of Abe’s record of success at the ballot box at that time of year. A seventh-consecutive national election victory could re-ignite talk of a fourth-straight term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader for Abe, who is set to become Japan’s longest-serving premier next month.

Abe’s most pressing immediate concern is to win parliamentary approval by the end of the year for a trade deal with the U.S. that cuts tariffs on several American agricultural products.

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The timing would’ve been favorable for a poll that came after Japan in November finishes a series of celebrations marking the ascension of the new emperor and before next year’s major events that include a proposed state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, floated for the spring, and Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympics.

Support for Abe’s cabinet was little changed at 57% in a poll carried out by the Nikkei newspaper earlier this month after Sugawara’s resignation. But 56% of respondents said they saw signs something was awry in Abe’s administration following that scandal.

“I was the one who appointed Minister Kawai and I am painfully aware of my responsibility for what happened,” Abe told reporters at his residence Thursday after accepting the latest resignation. “I want to apologize deeply to the people.”

Abe named former Gender Equality Minister Masako Mori to take over the post. Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda -- known for his close ties to Abe -- has also come under fire for appearing to dismiss concerns that students on low incomes would be disadvantaged by the use of private English-language testing for university entrance.

Abe has proved adept at deflecting the fallout from ministerial missteps since taking office for the second time in 2012. His cabinet survived the simultaneous resignations of two cabinet ministers in 2014 and he went on to win a general election two months later.

His economy minister, Akira Amari, stepped down in 2016 over a funding scandal, while Abe himself came under scrutiny last year over government favors provided to schools linked to the premier and his wife.

Prospects for a December election had already begun to fade even before the scandals hit, with the priority for many being rebuilding after a series of powerful typhoons sparked flooding that killed about 100 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi -- the son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- has long led public opinion surveys as the perferred choice to succeed Abe. The second-most popular contender is Shigeru Ishiba, according to the Nikkei poll, a former defense minister who has kept his distance from the cabinet in recent years.

To contact the reporters on this story: Emi Nobuhiro in Tokyo at enobuhiro@bloomberg.net;Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at ireynolds1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Jon Herskovitz

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