TOKYO - The loss of Ms Yuko Obuchi, the poster girl of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet, will undoubtedly deal a heavy blow to the administration.
Reports yesterday said Ms Obuchi plans to resign as economy, trade and industry minister over a political funds scandal. She has been in office for less than two months. "I cannot cause problems for the Cabinet," she said.
Ms Obuchi is said to have told Mr Abe's aides that she planned to bring the matter up with the Prime Minister, who returned to Tokyo last Saturday after the Europe-Asia summit in Milan.
The 40-year-old minister is one of five women appointed to the Cabinet in a reshuffle early last month to underline Mr Abe's policy of empowering women.
Popular and soft-spoken, Ms Obuchi is also instrumental in Mr Abe's efforts to persuade the public to accept the government's unpopular drive to restart the nation's nuclear power plants.
Since the Fukushima nuclear power station was knocked out by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, all of Japan's nuclear plants have been idled.
If Ms Obuchi does quit, she would be the first minister to do so over a scandal since Mr Abe returned to power in December 2012. Several ministers were forced to step down during his brief one-year stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.
Ms Obuchi, Japan's youngest post-war minister and often tipped to be the country's first female prime minister, is unable to explain irregularities in her political funds accounts.
In reply to repeated questions from opposition lawmakers in Parliament last Friday, she said: "I feel that ignorance is no excuse."
She told the influential Nikkei business daily: "I am investigating (the funding issue), but I think there is no convincing explanation." Candidates for ministerial appointments have to pass a check on their financial and other problems before they are confirmed.
Said veteran political news journalist Shiro Tazaki: "Obuchi has been minister once before.
"So the Abe administration probably thought she was clean and did not screen her thoroughly this time."
The Mainichi Shimbun daily said Ms Obuchi's political funding organisation had paid more than 3.5 million yen (about S$42,000) to businesses run by her family members over a five-year period starting in 2008.
The bulk of the money went to a boutique managed by her brother-in-law. A smaller sum went to a design studio headed by her elder sister.
In addition, the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho alleged that two political support groups in Ms Obuchi's constituency had spent some 26 million yen on theatre tickets for her supporters.
The omission of the expenditure from the accounts of her political support groups is a violation of the political funds control law. But such expenditure is illegal as it can be interpreted as vote-buying.
Ms Obuchi's departure would undermine Mr Abe's policy of promoting women, which he touts as a major policy initiative.
But observers say an early exit from the Cabinet will minimise the fallout from the scandal, giving her the chance to make a political comeback.
Besides Ms Obuchi, the remaining female Cabinet ministers are also in trouble.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan last week lodged a criminal complaint against Justice Minister Midori Matsushima for distributing 22,000 uchiwa, or round paper fans, to constituents.
The distribution of the fans - which carry her caricature, name and title and cost 1.75 million yen to procure - is said to be in violation of the election campaign law which bans gifts to voters.
Ms Eriko Yamatani, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, has been criticised for her ties with an ultra-rightwing group that harasses ethnic Korean residents in Japan.
Also, gender issue minister Haruko Arimura and internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi have drawn flak for their conservative views.
The three women prayed at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last Saturday.
This article was first published on October 20, 2014.
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