Trade minister resigns after only 1 month over allegations he broke election law

Japan's trade minister Isshu Sugawara resigned Friday amid allegations that his office offered condolence money and gifts to supporters in violation of the country's election law.
With opposition parties piling pressure on Sugawara to step down, the 57-year-old minister was effectively sacked. The prime minister's office had asked him to consider leaving the post in an apparent effort to contain damage to the administration, sources familiar with the situation said.
The abrupt resignation is a setback for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who tapped Sugawara for the job in a cabinet reshuffle just over a month ago.
Abe told reporters he accepted Sugawara's resignation offer, adding that Hiroshi Kajiyama, a former minister in charge of regional revitalization, will take over as trade minister.
"The responsibility lies with me for having appointed (Sugawara)," the prime minister said.
Sugawara had been put in charge of Japan's trade and industrial policies at a time of heightened bilateral tensions with South Korea over Tokyo's tighter export controls.
"I apologize for stepping down at a time when there is so much that needs to be done," Sugawara told reporters.
Sugawara is the ninth cabinet minister to step down since Abe returned to power in 2012 and his departure follows the resignation in April of gaffe-prone Yoshitaka Sakurada from the post of Olympics minister.
Sugawara's stint was cut short after the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine reported in its latest edition on Thursday that Sugawara's secretary had offered 20,000 yen in condolence money to the bereaved family of a supporter in his Tokyo constituency in mid-October.
His office also sent funeral flowers to multiple bereaved families this year, according to the magazine.
Japan's public offices election law bans politicians from making donations to voters in their home constituencies. Politicians are allowed to offer money personally at ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
Sugawara admitted Friday that both he and his secretary had handed out condolence money, but that he was still confirming whether the act violated the election law.
He said he decided to resign because he did not want the scandal to prevent the smooth running of the government.
"I do not want the Diet session to be held up, to be unable to deliberate on legislation because of me," he told reporters. "Nor do I want to hold up economic and industrial policy, nor the government as a whole."
Sugawara had come under fire following another Shukan Bunshun story reporting that he had handed out melons and crabs to local supporters, prompting calls by opposition parties for him to give an explanation to the Diet.
In what was his first Cabinet post, Sugawara was tasked with overseeing ongoing negotiations to create a 16-member Asia-wide free trade area under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and guiding energy policy as Japan continues to grapple with the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
When a recent gift-giving scandal came to light exposing collusive ties between Kansai Electric Power Co and a local town that hosts one of its nuclear power plants, Sugawara called the practice "utterly outrageous" if true.
He belongs to Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and is currently serving his sixth term as a lawmaker in the House of Representatives.
Sugawara is known to be close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the backbone of the Abe administration.
"We will have to straighten up and work to regain public trust," the top government spokesman told a regular press conference.
The new trade minister Kajiyama, 64, assumes the same post briefly held by his father Seiroku Kajiyama, a prominent lawmaker who also served as chief Cabinet secretary and justice minister in the 1990s.
The younger Kajiyama left a job at the now-defunct Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp to work under his father as a secretary, eventually taking on his constituency in Ibaraki Prefecture. He is now in his seventh term in the House of Representatives.
Kajiyama became a senior vice land minister in 2012 before taking the post of minister in charge of regional revitalization and regulatory reform in 2017.

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