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03 Jul 2007 09:03
Japan’s defence minister resigned on Tuesday over remarks that appeared to accept the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly tapped a woman for the post to try to quell the furore ahead of an election this month.
Abe’s support rates have already been slashed by outrage over government mishandling of pension records, and Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma’s perceived gaffe has been adding to his headaches before the July 29 upper house poll.
“I regret that my comments have caused trouble. I am very sorry,” Kyuma—whose election district includes Nagasaki—told reporters, adding that Abe had accepted his offer to resign.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Abe had tapped national security adviser Yuriko Koike (54) a former environment minister who speaks fluent English and Arabic, to succeed Kyuma and become Japan’s first female defence minister.
She will be sworn in on Wednesday.
Kyuma had apologised several times and Abe had tried to dampen criticism by reprimanding the 66-year-old minister, who said on Saturday the atomic bombings just days before Japan’s surrender in World War II “could not be helped”.
But opposition parties, keen to press their advantage ahead of the election, had kept up pressure for him to resign.
The scale was tipped when a prominent lawmaker in the ruling coalition’s junior partner obliquely called for Kyuma to go.
“It is natural he should resign.
Kyuma is the second minister to resign since Abe took office in September, after a funding scandal felled a Cabinet member of December. A scandal-tainted farm minister killed himself in May.
“It’s a big blow to Abe. The problem for Abe is that his initial reaction was to try to defend him,” said Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University political science professor.
“I think the damage is pretty substantial. It’s better for Abe that Kyuma resigns than not, but it’s a bad story for Abe,” Curtis added. “I still wouldn’t predict the results of the election. If the voting rate is low, Abe can survive. But now there is a real chance he won’t survive.”
Another analyst, who declined to be identified, said voters’ main concern remained the government bungling of pension records, a massive mixup that could shortchange retirees.
Abe can ill afford any more furores ahead of the election.
“There is no doubt that it will be a minus for the government,” former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura was quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency after the resignation.
A weekend survey by the Asahi newspaper showed the prime minister’s support rate had slipped three points in the previous week to 28%, the weakest showing for the once-popular leader since he took office last September.
Kyuma had already gained a reputation for verbal gaffes since taking office last year, angering Washington in January by calling the invasion of Iraq a mistake.
More than 360 000 people ultimately died from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which were quickly followed by Japan’s surrender, ending World War II.
The atomic attacks hold a central role in Japan’s collective memory. The country has been criticised for stressing its status as victim while failing to acknowledge its own war atrocities.
The ruling coalition needs to win 64 of the 121 seats up for grabs to maintain its majority in the 242-member upper house.
Abe will not automatically have to step down if his coalition loses its upper house majority. If it falls short by a few seats, the ruling bloc can probably keep its grip on the chamber by wooing independents or members of a tiny conservative party.
But a big loss would mean the ruling bloc could not enact legislation, which must win approval in both chambers, threatening political paralysis and sparking calls for Abe to quit or even call a snap lower house election. - Reuters
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