Japan minister in S&M bar scandal hit by fresh allegations

Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa speaking to the media on October 20, 2014.

TOKYO - Japan's industry minister was under renewed pressure on Friday over his stake in the operator of the Fukushima nuclear plant that he oversees, just a day after admitting his underlings had spent office cash at a sex bar.

Japan's usually staid political scene has been left reeling from the S&M club scandal and the resignations of two other newly appointed cabinet ministers who quit this week in the wake of misspending accusations.

The double resignations marked the first significant blow to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since he swept to power in December 2012.

Industry Minister Yoichi Miyazawa, 64, who only took the job a few days ago when predecessor Yuko Obuchi stepped down, stood firm when faced with questions about shares he holds in Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), denying any conflict of interest and insisting he would never sell them.

The veteran politician's new job oversees the energy sector and is the face for Tokyo's attempts to convince a sceptical public on the safety of re-starting Japan's nuclear reactors. They were switched off in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

"Keeping them means I'm supporting TEPCO as the minister in charge," he told reporters on Friday.

Tokyo brushed off the issue, saying that Miyazawa disclosed his holding of about 600 shares in the embattled company - currently worth about US$1,850 (S$2360) - and agreed to place them in trust during his tenure as industry minister.

Miyazawa reportedly bought the vast majority of the stock before the atomic crisis, for which the company was severely criticised.

"I don't think there is any problem at all," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, told a regular press briefing on Friday.

"If someone is sworn in as a minister, the rules say he or she should refrain from share trading during their term and entrust those shares to a trust bank... Minister Miyazawa has already started" on the process, he added.

'I scolded my people'

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPH) issued a vague warning that it would take "necessary measures" over the string of incidents, and said Miyazawa should have dumped his shares as soon as he was tipped for the new job.

"Keeping a check on cabinet is one of the key roles for opposition parties so it's natural for us to question the quality of new members," said Tatsuo Kawabata, the DPJ's senior official in charge of parliamentary issues.

Yoshihisa Inoue, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner Komeito, added: "I hope (Miyazawa) will offer the public an acceptable explanation." Widespread anti-nuclear sentiment has simmered in Japan since a quake-sparked tsunami in March 2011 slammed into the Fukushima power plant and sent reactors into meltdown - the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl.

Also Friday, the under-fire minister said he had disciplined staff at his political office who billed an 18,230 yen (S$215) visit to an S&M bar in September 2010 as a political expense.

The venue in Hiroshima allows male patrons to whip tied-up female employees.

"I have scolded my people and ordered them to pay back the cost" of the visit, he said, adding that new office spending rules were being drafted.

Harvard graduate Miyazawa - a nephew of late prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa and a cousin of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida - was appointed this week to replace his just-hired predecessor Obuchi, who resigned over claims she misspent political funds.

Justice Minister Midori Matsushima also quit this week over a spending scandal in what opponents insisted was an attempt to buy votes.

Abe's victory in 2012 came after years of fragile governments that swapped prime ministers on an annual basis.

The revolving door of leaders was linked to plunging approval ratings due to policy failures and various scandals involving senior ministers.

Money scandals are not uncommon in Japanese politics, where rules on spending tend to be slightly opaque, barring little except explicit bribery and vote buying.