Japan PM Abe suffers setback as two ministers quit

Japan PM Abe suffers setback as two ministers quit
From left to right: Trade and industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima.

TOKYO - Japan's new trade and industry minister quit over a funding scandal on Monday and the justice minister resigned after being accused of violating electoral laws, dealing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe his biggest setback since taking office in 2012.

The resignations of the two women could complicate tough decisions on key policies, including whether to go ahead with an unpopular plan to raise the national sales tax and planned restarts of nuclear reactors that were shut down after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Trade and industry Minister Yuko Obuchi, 40, the daughter of a prime minister and tipped as a future contender to become Japan's first female premier, told a news conference she was resigning after allegations that her support groups misused political funds.

Just hours later, Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also resigned. The opposition Democratic Party had filed a criminal complaint against Matsushima, accusing her of violating the election law by distributing paper fans to voters.

Obuchi and Matsushima were two of five women appointed by Abe in a cabinet reshuffle in early September - a move intended to boost his popularity and show his commitment to promoting women as part of his "Abenomics" strategy to revive the economy.

"I appointed them and as prime minister, I bear responsibility," Abe told reporters at his office. "I deeply apologise to the people of the nation." Abe added he wanted to pick successors for the two posts within the day.

As head of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), Obuchi, a telegenic mother of two, was tasked with selling Abe's unpopular plan to restart nuclear reactors to a wary public worried about safety.

"We cannot let economic policy and energy policy stagnate at METI because of my problems, so I will resign my position," a solemn Obuchi told a nationally televised news conference, bowing deeply in apology.

The departures are the first cabinet resignations for Abe, who took office in December 2012 for a rare second term, promising to revive Japan's stalled economy and strengthen its security stance to cope with challenges such as a rising China.

OPPOSITION TAKES AIM

Abe's first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007 was marred by scandals among his ministers - several quit and one committed suicide. Abe himself resigned after just one year in the face of parliamentary deadlock, sliding support rates and ill health.

His current government had been little touched by scandal until the cabinet rejig. Abe's ruling coalition has a hefty parliamentary majority and no general election need be held until 2016, but the opposition Democrats have taken aim at new ministers in debates to try to dent Abe's popularity.

Defence Minister Akinori Eto, also appointed in September, has faced questions from the opposition over his political funds.

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