Isshu Sugawara, the minister of economy, trade and industry, stepped down on Oct. 25 after only one and a half months in the post amid allegations he gave gifts to voters in his electoral district.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be held strictly responsible for giving Sugawara a Cabinet portfolio despite suspicions that he may have violated the Public Offices Election Law.
His resignation was triggered by a weekly magazine article about his government-paid secretary who gave a “koden” money offering during the wake for a former Sugawara supporter who died recently.
The Shukan Bunshun published the article, along with photos showing scenes from the wake held last week, when Sugawara faced opposition party questions about earlier allegations that he had given similar gifts to his constituents.
Sugawara initially said he would explain what happened during an Oct. 25 Diet session, but he instead submitted his resignation to Abe before the session.
Sugawara told reporters that he had resigned to prevent any personal issues from disrupting Diet proceedings.
But he did not show any signs of confronting the seriousness of the matter, which could even cost him his job as a Diet member.
The Public Offices Election Law, in principle, bans lawmakers from giving money or other valuables to constituents in their districts.
Lawmakers are allowed to offer koden only when they themselves hand the condolence money to the bereaved families. But they are prohibited from letting their secretaries bring such money to the bereaved on their behalf.
Sugawara on Oct. 25 admitted that one of his secretaries offered koden but claimed he was not aware of the fact. When he attended the funeral on the following day, Sugawara added, the bereaved family, which had recognized the problem, returned the money that was provided by the secretary.
It is hard to believe that the secretary took the action without telling Sugawara in advance.
Even if what he said is true, Sugawara should be harshly criticized for failing to fulfill his supervisory responsibility given that at least one member of his staff did not know one of the most basic rules laid down by the law.
It would hardly be surprising if the lawmaker was connected to many other similar cases of possible violations of the law.
The Asahi Shimbun and the Shukan Asahi weekly reported a decade ago that Sugawara had given gifts in the form of expensive melons and other valuable items to constituents.
It is difficult to imagine that these allegations against Sugawara were not reported to Abe and his top aides before the prime minister appointed him to the post in a Cabinet reshuffle on Sept. 11.
Abe and his aides may have not taken the allegations seriously because they apparently happened long ago, and the statute of limitations on any violation of the gift-giving ban ran out in three years.
If Abe and other top administration officials thought they would be able to deal with any political repercussions from Sugawara’s past acts, that is another sign of the administration’s arrogance stemming from Abe’s dominant political power.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga should also be held heavily responsible for the politician’s resignation. Suga is close to Sugawara and reportedly recommended him for a Cabinet post.
Sugawara’s departure should not mark the end to efforts to clarify the facts and accountability of people responsible.
Under the Abe administration, a slew of officials implicated in serious scandals resigned from their posts to bring an end to the controversies. But they made quiet political comebacks after the storm subsided.
Akira Amari, for example, resigned as economy minister in 2016 amid allegations that he had accepted money in exchange for political favors. He assumed the post of chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s tax commission in September without offering any convincing explanation about the allegations.
After Sugawara’s resignation, Abe told reporters that he “bears responsibility for appointing him.” Abe has uttered this phrase almost every time one of his ministers steps down.
The prime minister’s responsibility now is to have Sugawara give detailed and convincing explanations about the allegations at the Diet or other public occasions.
If he fails to do so, Abe’s reference to his responsibility for appointing him will, again, be seen as just talk.