Double-whammy for Japan's Shinzo Abe: Two female cabinet ministers resign

Industry minister and pro-nuclear advocate Yuko Obuchi and Justice minister Midori Matsushima were both appointed last month but stepped down today amid allegations of impropriety. They were part of Abe's effort to raise the profile of professional women. 

Eugene Hoshiko/AP/File
In this Sept. 3, 2014 file photo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center bottom, and his new Cabinet members, Trade Minister Yuko Obuchi, bottom left, Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi, right bottom, Minister in charge of Promoting Women Haruko Arimura, center, Minister in charge of Japanese Abducted by North Korea Eriko Yamatani, middle right, and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima, top right, pose during the new Cabinet members' photo session following the first Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo. Japan's trade and justice ministers resigned Monday after accusations they misused campaign funds in the biggest setback so far for Abe's conservative administration. Obuchi and Matsushima were among five women Abe named to his Cabinet in a reshuffle early last month, part of an effort to promote women in politics and business that is a key pillar of his government's economic revival policies.

The departure of both the Japanese industry and justice minsters today within hours of each other deals a significant blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and appears to mark the first significant crisis for a popular leader known for strength and decisiveness.  

The resignations of Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima – both female ministers appointed just last month – also bodes ill for Mr. Abe's grand project to raise the profile of women in business and politics. The two senior figures resigned amid allegations they violated political funding and election laws. 

Japanese media said Yoko Kamikawa, a former gender equality minister (and a woman), would replace Ms. Matsushima at the justice ministry; Ms. Obuchi’s industry position would go Yoichi Miyazawa, a former economics vice minister (a male).

The embattled former ministers were among a record-equaling five women appointed to the Japanese cabinet in September. Adding to possible injury, two other female ministers recently appeared in Japanese media alongside extremist nationalists. . 

As industry minister, part of Obuchi’s brief was to convince skeptical Japanese to accept the restart of several nuclear reactors three-and-a-half years after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown following a tsunami.

As a mother of two children, Obuchi was also considered an ideal spokesperson to deliver Abe’s pro-nuclear message to female voters, who are among the most vociferous opponents of reactor restarts.

Fallout from the resignations may mean Abe holds off on a decision to raise the sales tax – a deeply unpopular move among voters but part of his economic reform – as he attempts to halt the decline in his approval ratings.

The prime minister's support levels have fallen nearly seven points to 48.1 percent since last month, according to a new Kyodo survey. Nearly two-thirds of respondents were against the tax hike, while more than 60 percent opposed the nuclear restarts.

Some analysts see trouble ahead for Abe, despite his attempts to act decisively when confronted with allegations of impropriety involving his ministers.

“This is the first real test he has faced since being elected and he needs to respond effectively to regain his mojo,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “The aura of invincibility and inevitability is truly gone. What started as a cabinet reshuffle designed mostly as a public relations event has backfired badly.”

Monday’s double-whammy conjures uncomfortable memories of Abe’s first stint as prime minister, when a string of ministerial scandals contributed to his resignation in 2007, after just a year in office.

"If there is growing pressure for more resignations, then the ‘domino’ resignation nightmare of Abe’s first government will no doubt come back quickly,” says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Washington, says Abe might be able to weather the storm.

“If no further allegations follow, dismissing two ministers in one day will look like a wise move by Abe that shows that he learned from his first premiership, a ‘short, sharp shock’ that reinforces his power over his government and shows that no one is indispensable," Mr. Harris says. "But if the allegations continue, I think at the very least, Abe's ability to move his agenda will be substantially diminished.”

After 22 months of remorse following a crushing election defeat by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in late 2012, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] has finally gone on the offensive, with its officials implying further impropriety among LDP ministers.

"There are more than two [other] ministers with regard to whom there are suspicions," the DPJ’s second-in-command, Yukio Edano, told reporters. "We will coordinate our actions among opposition parties, point out the problems and ask for explanations about the other ministers."

The loss of Obuchi, the daughter of a former premier who had been tipped to become Japan’s first female prime minister, is particularly troubling for Abe's championing of women to senior positions, and efforts to convince Japan’s hidebound corporations to do likewise.

By unhappy coincidence for Abe, two other female ministers have come under media pressure after they appeared in photographs with senior members of extremist groups.

"His five-women cabinet has been a disaster from the get-go as two of them have spoken out against empowering women, two have ties to hate speech groups, and now the only popular women minister has been undone by the misuse of political funds,” says Mr. Kingston.

"What started as an empty gesture reeking of tokenism has become a cascading scandal that undermines his credibility with women voters.”

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