Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has dismissed his fourth minister in two months in an attempt to patch up a scandal-tainted cabinet even as the government seeks to halt a dip in support and push a record budget through parliament.
Kenya Akiba, the minister in charge of the reconstruction of Fukushima and other disaster-hit areas, has faced allegations of mishandling political and election funds and of ties to the Unification Church.
“I have made a heavy decision and submitted my resignation,” Akiba told reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Kishida.
He repeated that he has never violated laws regarding the issues for which he was criticised and that he was resigning because he did not want to trouble the party or stall parliamentary debate because of his presence in the cabinet.
Akiba’s dismissal, the fourth of Kishida’s appointees since August, was seen as the prime minister’s attempt to remove obstacles to passing a key budget bill, including hefty defence spending aimed at bolstering Japan’s strike capability.
“I take my responsibility of appointment very seriously,” Kishida said. “I will keep fulfilling my political responsibility by continuing to tackle a mountain of problems.”
The country’s internal affairs minister, Minoru Terada, resigned at the end of November over a funding scandal, becoming the third cabinet member to leave in less than a month in a severe blow to Kishida’s already diminishing support.
Kishida’s approval ratings started sinking after the July assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed deep and longstanding ties between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians and the Unification Church, a group that critics say is a cult.
Kishida tapped former reconstruction minister Hiromichi Watanabe as Akiba’s replacement, and his appointment would become official after a palace ceremony.
Jun Azumi, a senior lawmaker of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan who has criticised Kishida for making other slow decisions on his staff, said that “four (dismissals) are too much and the prime minister should be held responsible over their appointment”.
While Kishida has made some drastic changes to the country’s defence and energy policies, including a new security strategy and maximising nuclear energy, he is also seen as being indecisive and slow in risk management of his own government.
Also on Tuesday, Kishida accepted the resignation of Mio Sugita, the parliamentary vice-minister for internal affairs, who has made derogatory remarks against sexual and ethnic minorities in the past.
Sugita said in 2018 that same-sex couples who don’t have children are “unproductive,” and in 2016, she scoffed at those wearing traditional ethnic costumes at a United Nations’ committee meeting as “middle-aged women in costume play”.
Kishida said Sugita submitted her resignation, saying that she cannot bend her personal beliefs while she retracted some of her earlier comments.
Kishida had been seen as a stable choice as leader and won the July elections with a prospect of a three-year mandate to achieve his policies until the next scheduled vote. But his popularity has plummeted over the LDP’s widespread ties to the Unification Church that surfaced after Abe’s assassination.
The suspected shooter told investigators his mother’s donations to the church bankrupted his family and ruined his life. He reportedly targeted Abe as a key figure behind the church’s ties to Japan’s LDP-led government.
Revelations have since surfaced about many LDP politicians having friendly ties to the church, which has been criticised as allegedly brainwashing followers into making huge donations. A new law passed earlier this month aims to restrict such activities.
Economic revitalisation minister Daishiro Yamagiwa quit on October 24 after failing to explain his ties to the Unification Church. In early November, justice minister Yasuhiro Hanashi resigned after remarking that his job was low profile and only made the news when he signed the death penalty.
Speculation has grown that Kishida will overhaul his cabinet soon to stem his plummeting popularity. While he did not rule out a reshuffle, he played down the possibility of it happening within the next week or two.
“I don’t mean to say I won’t ever consider a cabinet reshuffle, I’m just saying I’m not considering one over the New Year holidays,” he said.