Japan's Abe Faces New Cabinet Scandal

By CHISAKI WATANABE
The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 5, 2007; 6:34 PM

TOKYO -- Just a week after naming a new Cabinet in an effort to regain public trust, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was hit Wednesday with another scandal _ calls for his environment minister to resign over misreported political funds.

It was the sixth scandal involving a Cabinet member in Abe's first year. Four have resigned _ including one this week _ and one killed himself in May.

In the latest fracas, Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita acknowledged an organization managing his political funds borrowed $103,000 from him, but reported getting only $86,200. Later the group reported borrowing a total of $200,000, but he said he loaned it only $130,000.

Kamoshita said Wednesday that the discrepancies were merely a mistake. "I will look into what had happened," he said.

Making a false statement in political funding reports is punishable by up to five years in prison or $8,600 in fines.

Critics say Japanese politicians underreport or overreport funding to hide expenses they cannot account for.

Kamoshita denied any illicit intent, and Abe said that "if it's a clerical mistake, I don't think this is a case" requiring resignation.

Other government officials also rallied to Kamoshita's defense, but they acknowledged concern about the potential fallout.

"At this point, we were told it's a clerical mistake," said Matsushige Ono, the deputy Cabinet secretary, but he added: "We have to respond to the people's severe concerns and doubts regarding political funds."

Though not himself tainted by scandal, Abe has a dismal record in naming members of the Cabinet, which hadn't had five ministers resign or leave in disgrace during its first year since 1992-93 under the late Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

Abe's third agriculture minister in four months, Takehiko Endo, resigned Monday after acknowledging a farm cooperative he headed got $9,930 in government subsidies by exaggerating weather damage to a 1999 grape harvest.

Abe's first agriculture minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, killed himself in May amid allegations he misused public money. His successor, Norihiko Akagi, resigned in August in a separate scandal. Two other ministers also have had to quit.

Abe has brushed off calls from the opposition that he resign, but the scandals have hurt him. After last week's Cabinet reshuffle, Abe's support stood at about 44 percent in opinion polls, well below the roughly 70 percent support he enjoyed soon after taking office a year ago.

Jin Igarashi, political scientist at Hosei University in Tokyo, said the latest case might not have been seen as a big issue, except for the troubles the Cabinet already had.

"This is a price Abe is paying now for not having resigned," he said.


© 2007 The Associated Press