Japan foreign minister's scandal may prove undoing for PM

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned Sunday after having accepted illegal political donations. It was another blow to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has only 20 percent support in the polls now.

Junji Kurokawa/AP
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, center, walks out after his press conference to announce his resignation from the post at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, Sunday, March 6. Mr. Maehara said he is stepping down over accepting a political donation from a foreigner, which is illegal in Japan.

The resignation of Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, over an illegal political donation piles further pressure on Naoto Kan’s unpopular government and may yet prove to be its final undoing.

Not only was Mr. Maehara one of the more popular members of the Kan cabinet – though this is not saying much about a government whose support level is hovering just above 20 percent – he was also a key Kan ally who was expected to succeed the prime minister if he did decide to step down.

Friday the opposition revealed in parliament that Maehara had received annual donations from a "foreign source." The Political Funds Law forbids politicians from accepting donations from non-Japanese entities, a regulation of which a foreign minister could be expected to be particularly wary.

In this case, it turned out there was no overseas billionaire attempting to influence government policy with suitcases full of cash. The donor was in fact a proprietress of a restaurant in Maehara’s home city who had donated 50,000 yen ($600) to his political campaigns for the past five years. The woman is a permanent resident of Japan who has known Maehara since he was a schoolboy, but is a Korean citizen. Like most Koreans in Japan, she does not hold Japanese citizenship nor the right to vote in elections in her adopted home.

"The donations had no effect at all on my duties as foreign minister, nor have I ever done any favors for donors in my political career. However, regardless of the amount of the donations or the fact that I was unaware of them, I have to accept the fact that as a foreign minister, I accepted donations from a foreigner,” Maehara told a press conference on Sunday.

Maehara also reported that Kan had asked him not to step down. Combined with the relatively innocuous nature of the issue in a country hardened to political scandal, Maehara's decision to resign despite Kan's support has led to some speculation that he may be paving the way for a leadership bid. The resignation further weakens the government and could force Kan to step down – possibly opening the door to Maehara – or call a snap election.

Either way, it is difficult to see Kan’s government lasting the year with a deadlocked parliament and a budget bill stuck in its preliminary stages.

Still, Kan used a parliamentary session today to reiterate his intention to carry on until the next election, regardless of his unpopularity, "Carrying out the administration's duty for the four-year term and then letting the people decide at the ballot box is best for the people themselves," he said. "I fully intend to fulfill my duty until that time comes."

If Kan does resign, he will become the fifth Japanese prime minister in succession to fail to last a year in office. With Maehara out of the picture, the pickings look slim as speculation turns to other possible successors to find the kind of decisive leadership required to bring Japan’s huge public debt under control.

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