Suicide Ends a Japanese Scandal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Haruyoshi Yamaguchi / Bloomberg News / Landov

Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japan's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, died today after reportedly hanging himself.

Japan's Agricultural Minister has been at the center of scandal for months. On Monday, Toshikatsu Matsuoka was scheduled to appear before the Japanese Diet to face parliamentary committee questioning over campaign contributions. At noon, after he failed to show up for a strategy meeting by his party to discuss the issue, his secretary and a bodyguard entered the dormitory room of the parliament and found Matsuoka, 62, in his pajamas, hanging from the top of a doorway at the end of what appeared to be a dog leash. He was pronounced dead two hours later at a nearby hostpital. Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported that several notes were later found, including one addressed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and another to the Japanese public. If his death is confirmed as a suicide, it will be the first of its kind for an active cabinet minister in post-war Japan — and it compounds the domestic problems of the government of Prime Minister Abe, whose approval ratings have plummeted.

At the news of Matsuoka's death, Abe said, "[His death] was very unfortunate. He was a very capable minister. This will have a big impact on the cabinet." But Matsuoka's gaffes and controversies had made the Abe government the butt of jokes. In March, for example, he explained the 29 million yen (nearly $240,000) utility bill for his parliamentary office — where rent, electricity and water are free of charge — by saying "We've installed nantoka [Whatchamacallit] rejuvenated water in our plumbing." Matsuoka was once again forced into the spotlight last week when Tokyo district prosecutors investigated and arrested officials affiliated with agricultural ministry-related organizations for bid-rigging in public works projects.

Matsuoka entered the agricultural ministry straight out of college and continued to have strong influence over the ministry when he made the switch from bureaucrat to Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) parliamentarian in 1990. After years of serving in deputy agricultural posts, Matsuoka was appointed to head the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries last September by Abe.

While the connection between these allegations and his death remains unclear, Matsuoka's scandals have caused such serious damage to the Abe cabinet that there had already been calls within the LDP for Matsuoka's resignation. Abe, however, continued to to defend his Agriculture Minister. It appears to have cost him dearly. Monday's poll by the national daily Mainichi Shimbun showed that Abe's approval rating fell to 32%, his lowest since becoming Prime Minister last September. The paper quoted anonymous LDP officials blaming Matsuoka's nantoka gaffe for the plunge. The Abe cabinet has already suffered two resignations by a cabinet minister and an aide last year. His party faces an upper house election in July. Says political analyst, Minoru Morita: "This [apparent suicide] may get a few sympathy votes in the upper house elections, but the majority of the Japanese public will be keenly aware of the gravity of the problem of money and politics. The Abe cabinet and the LDP are going to have to address this issue."