Japan's 'Abenomics' minister caught in bribery scandal
The most serious public funding scandal to hit Japan’s Shinzo Abe government in three years may rob the prime minister of his key economics minister at a time when parliament is debating ratification of the regional Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Minister for Economy and Fiscal Policy Akira Amari – also known as the "minister of Abenomics” – stands accused of breaking the Public Funds Control law by allegedly accepting around $100,000 in bribes in exchange for favors for an unnamed construction company.

The allegations were published last week in the Japanese magazine ‘Shukan Bunchan’, which described how Amari and his secretary took money from an officer of an unidentified construction company near Tokyo for his help in a road-building dispute.

Amari’s initial response to the allegations indicated some confusion on his part. "It’s a fact that I received a courtesy call [from the company president] but my memory is fuzzy as to what I did exactly,” he said at a committee meeting Thursday.

At a press conference Friday, he more forthrightly defended himself.

"I haven’t broken any laws.”

He said he would offer a fuller account of the situation in a week, underlining that he would not resign.

Prime Minister Abe said he believed that Amari would carry out the necessary investigation promptly and fulfill his responsibility to explain the matter to the public.

However, Hiroshi Hoshi, a senior political writer for the ‘Asahi Shimbun’ newspaper who has followed the trajectory of numerous similar public funding scandals over the years, has said that the minister’s resignation is "inevitable.”
The scandal could not have come at a worst time for Abe and for Amari himself.

Parliament is just getting started debating ratification of the U.S.-led TPP trade treaty, which the government considers a cornerstone of its economy strategy.

As the chief Japanese negotiator, Amari’s encyclopedic knowledge of the treaty is important for ratification and he has been Tokyo’s main point man in the difficult and lengthy negotiation leading to the 12-nation pact.

Amari was scheduled to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos next week, where he was to explain and defend the country’s economic policies, at a time of growing concern over the course of the world’s economies.

From there he was to attend the official TPP signing ceremony Feb. 4 in New Zealand.

Amari has said that he still plans to go to Davos, and presumably to New Zealand as well.

But Hoshi is skeptical that he can hold on for that long, writing of the likelihood that "another minister will attend for Japan.”

This is potentially the most serious scandal to hit the Abe government since it took power in a landslide election in 2012, since when three other cabinet ministers have resigned over public funding allegations.

They were, however, comparative newcomers to cabinet rank and on the periphery of policy making.

On the other hand, Amari is not only a close ally of Abe but also the architect of his most important policy initiative dubbed "Abenomics.”

Abe faces a number of challenges in the coming months, which can be undermined by Amari’s troubles.

The best case for Abe would be for the sandal to quietly disappear, for him to make a splash at the G-7 summit set to be hosted by Japan in May and to proceed to win a big victory in the July election for the House of Councillors.

Conversely, the scandal could, in the worse case, linger on for weeks or even grow, causing turmoil in parliament, taking the glow off the G-7 meeting and leading to a loss of seats in the upper house election and a resignation.

Last Modified: 2016-01-23 11:52:16
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