Japanese foreign minister Maehara resigns amid donation flap

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 10:51 PM

TOKYO - Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned Sunday after receiving illegal donations from a foreigner, dealing another blow to Prime Minister Naoto Kan's faltering ruling party.

At a televised news conference, Maehara, 48, apologized to the Japanese people for "provoking distrust over a problem with my political funding - although I have sought to pursue a clean style of politics."

Maehara's surprise resignation, coming just two days after he acknowledged receiving illegal donations from a South Korean living in Japan, amplifies the problems Japan faces both domestically and with its closest allies. The hawkish Maehara was popular among Obama administration officials, who viewed him as an advocate for the countries' shared security interest in Asia. Maehara was often described by political analysts as a prime minister-in-waiting, and the scandal sidetracks, at least briefly, the aspirations of one of Japan's most prominent leaders.

According to reports in the Japanese media, Maehara had received a total of 200,000 yen (about $2,400) from a 72-year-old South Korean woman. The donor lives in Japan; she speaks the language and runs a restaurant in Kyoto. And she has known Maehara since childhood. But in an effort to prevent outside influence, Japanese law bans politicians from receiving donations from foreign nationals.

Maehara said he did not knowingly violate the law. Even so, he faced the possibility of a fine or a prison sentence, causing opposition lawmakers to pounce. On Sunday morning talk shows, they called for the foreign minister to either take responsibility for his actions or step down.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said by e-mail that Maehara notified Kan before his resignation.

As it tries to deal with economic stagnation and a towering debt, Japan's government has had a hard time finding leaders who can survive over the long term. None of Japan's previous four prime ministers lasted more than a year on the job. Kan has recently seen his approval rating drop to near 20 percent, and his party's inability to push bills through parliament could further erode his credibility.

Already, Japan's opposition politicians are urging Kan to either resign or call for a snap election.

Meanwhile, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is being threatened by vicious infighting. Early last week, 16 party members refused to show up for a voting session on the upcoming budget. The bloc of parliament members remains loyal to former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, a scandal-tainted heavyweight from whom Kan has tried to distance himself.

U.S. officials have privately bemoaned the lack of continuity in Tokyo, and the merry-go-round leadership has further undermined efforts to finalize a plan for the relocation of a controversial Marine base in Okinawa.

Maehara, who became foreign minister in September, had urged that the base be relocated to a less populated part of Okinawa - as stated in a 2006 agreement between the two governments.

Maehara also was the point man for the DPJ's efforts to deal with concerns over North Korea and an increasingly militarized China. Maehara discussed both issues during a January meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was his fourth meeting with Clinton in four months on the job.

Maehara at the time called 2011 "the inaugural year of the new Japan-U.S. alliance."

"The roles of our two countries will not diminish in any way in the days ahead," he said. "In fact, in view of the urgent need to develop institutional foundations in the region today, expectations are only rising that we play even greater roles, and I feel the responsibilities on our shoulders are very great."

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