After nearly two years without a single resignation from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, two female ministers -- appointed only last month -- stepped down on the same day.
Yuko Obuchi, 40, trade and industry minister, resigned over allegations of improper use of political funds, and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, 58, quit over claims she breached election laws. The resignations are a double blow to Abe who has made promoting women a pillar of his economic policy.
Abe’s government has enjoyed unusually stable voter approval since he took office in December 2012, helped by economic policies that have boosted the stock market and an absence of scandals. Faced with a shrinking workforce, he has sought to attract more women to paid employment, emphasized a goal of having women in 30 percent of leadership positions by 2020, and appointed women to high profile government positions.
“This is the first real bump in the road for Abe, who has been doing well, keeping support rates high even though his policies are not that popular,” said Steven Reed, professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo. With the resignation of the two ministers “one of his ways of distracting people from his less popular policies is no longer a distraction.”
Abe, speaking after accepting the resignations, apologized and said he would quickly choose their successors. Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi was appointed interim trade minister, and Eriko Yamatani, the minister for abductee issues, was made justice minister on a temporary basis, according to documents from Abe’s office.
Obuchi’s support group organized theater trips for which participants paid less than the ticket price, a possible illegal use of funds, NHK and other media reported. A political funding group she heads spent 2 million yen ($19,000) on goods from a company where her brother-in-law is a director, the Nikkei newspaper said on Oct. 17.
Yuko Obuchi, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister, attends a news conference in Tokyo on Oct. 20, 2014.
“It is not acceptable for a trade and industry minister to impede economic and energy policy,” Obuchi told reporters at the ministry today, after she was grilled in parliament over the funding allegations last week. “I resign my post as a minister and will do everything I can to investigate these suspicions.”
Matsushima had come under fire for handing out paper fans to her constituents, in what the opposition Democratic Party of Japan says is a breach of election laws. Matsushima told reporters she did not believe she had broken the law and quit because she did not want the issue to hamper policymaking.
A string of scandals and resignations blighted Abe’s first 2006-2007 administration when the Democratic Party boasted more public support. Abe eventually stepped down suffering from an intestinal disorder.
Abe’s approval ratings rose after he named a record-equaling five women to his new cabinet on Sept. 3, though some of the gains have been lost in recent weeks. Support for Abe’s cabinet dropped 6.8 percentage points from September to 48.1 percent, according to a Kyodo News poll conducted Oct. 18-19, while approval of the Democratic Party increased to 8.1 percent from 4.7 percent.
The Kyodo poll showed 60 percent of respondents were against Abe’s policy of restarting nuclear power plants deemed safe under new standards introduced after the Fukushima disaster. Almost 85 percent said they were not feeling any benefit from Abe’s economic policies, with about 66 percent against an increase in the sales tax to 10 percent next year from 8 percent now.
The timing of the resignations is “terrible,” said Kazuhiko Ogata, chief Japan economist at Credit Agricole SA in Tokyo. “Abe really wants to keep popularity before a decision whether to raise the sales tax again this year.”
Stephen Church, a partner at Tokyo-based JI Asia, said in an e-mailed note today that a delay in the sales-tax increase is now “much more likely other things being equal.”
Other women named to Abe’s cabinet have come in for criticism after separate photos emerged of them posing with a former Japanese neo-Nazi leader. Takaichi and Yamatani, who are also the two interim appointees, denied knowing about the man’s neo-Nazi links.
As industry minister, Obuchi was set to lead Abe’s effort to bring some of the country’s nuclear reactors back into operation.
She had been tipped as a future prime minister, attracted widespread support when she took over her father’s seat after he died in 2000 after suffering a stroke while serving as prime minister. She became the youngest postwar cabinet minister in 2008.