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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012
Opposition hits Noda over justice chief's mob ties
Besieged Tanaka exits over 'health reasons'
By MASAMI ITO and NATSUKO FUKUE
Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka stepped down Tuesday for "health reasons" only three weeks after his appointment amid strong calls for his exit not only from the opposition camp but from within the ruling bloc over past mob ties and illicit donations.
The resignation of Tanaka, 74, who admitted to being a matchmaker for a yakuza member decades ago, dealt a fresh blow to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is already suffering historic low popularity levels and is trying to avoid dissolving the Lower House and calling an election at a time when his ruling Democratic Party of Japan faces likely defeat.
Tanaka's exit also came just ahead of the Monday start of an extra legislative session, thus prompting media speculation that the justice minister, who only took up his post Oct. 1, was being pushed out to keep the opposition off Noda's back as much as possible when the Diet opens.
Had Tanaka stayed on, he would undoubtedly have faced passage of a nonbinding censure motion against him in the opposition-controlled Upper House.
Noda, however, is still expected to face a strong confrontation in the Diet next week for picking Tanaka as justice minister — a post that technically oversees police investigations into yakuza-related crimes.
Both Tanaka and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura insisted Tanaka was quitting over health reasons.
"I have high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, and was told I needed medical treatment," Tanaka said in a written statement.
"I wanted to continue my job and fulfill my duties, but my health would not permit me to do so, and I decided to step down because I could not bear causing trouble for the people's lives and for the legal, administrative and Diet affairs," he said.
Fujimura said he received Tanaka's written resignation from the justice minister's secretary Tuesday morning and Noda approved it.
The Justice Ministry said Tanaka was unable to hold a news conference to explain why he quit because he did not feel well. Instead, he issued the written statement.
"(Tanaka) was the one who came to the decision over his physical condition," Fujimura said, trying to deflect any criticism of Noda for appointing him. Fujimura also said Tanaka was "not effectively fired."
Tanaka was simultaneously serving as state minister in charge of the North Korea abductee issue, the seventh to hold that post since the DPJ came to power in August 2009. His quick departure, like that of his predecessors, drew quick scorn from relatives of people believed abducted by Pyongyang who remain missing.
Tanaka came under fire when the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho ran a scoop that he had links to a major underworld syndicate in Yokohama, a revelation he later admitted. He also drew flak for past donations from a firm run by a Chinese national.In his resignation statement, Tanaka said he is considering taking legal action against the publisher.
But the opposition camp, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, was quick to deem Tanaka's resignation "too late."
"Why (did Tanaka's problems go unaddressed) for so long? And why was he chosen in the first place? I think the prime minister should be held responsible for appointing him," said New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi.
Noda reshuffled the Cabinet on Oct. 1 to strengthen his government. But given his weak leadership and with the DPJ in danger of losing the Lower House, he prioritized choosing lawmakers who helped him win the September DPJ presidential election and those whom his foes in the ruling party could stomach. Tanaka, a veteran lawmaker with no prior Cabinet experience, backed Noda in the race.
Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University, said Noda managed to dodge the worst-case scenario with Tanaka's exit before the Diet convenes next week, but the outlook is still bleak for the prime minister.
"The position of justice minister is very important and it was a big mistake to appoint Tanaka," Iwai told The Japan Times.
"It's ridiculous that (Noda) appointed him without doing a thorough background check. . . . I guess they figured it was better if Tanaka resigns for health reasons."
A Sunday by-election in Kagoshima Prefecture may see the DPJ candidate suffer from the fallout over the Tanaka affair, Iwai speculated.