TOKYO -- In a matter of three days, the prime minister's office went from trying to defend Koya Nishikawa against suspicions of campaign finance violations to realizing there may be more to come.
Nishikawa resigned abruptly Monday as farm minister. Team Abe hopes letting Nishikawa's scandals fade into the background will minimize any impact on the government's farm policy agenda, which includes reforming agricultural cooperatives and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
Nishikawa's position began to give way Friday, when he met discreetly with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. The two men are on easy terms, having won their first parliamentary races in the same year. Their meeting Friday convinced both of them that Nishikawa had no choice but to step down, a person familiar with their conversation said. By Sunday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had agreed that Nishikawa would resign the following day, this person said.
From the moment Abe picked him as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in September, Nishikawa's questionable campaign finance ties began to emerge. Opposition parties redoubled their pressure on him recently, taking advantage of a high-profile venue often used for such attacks: the lower house budget committee.
One contribution they seized on dates to 2012, when Nishikawa was not a lower house member due to losing a previous election. A Liberal Democratic Party branch organization he was heading received 3 million yen ($25,000 in today's money) from a lumber company that had benefited from national subsidies. In Monday's budget committee, it was revealed that Nishikawa had served as an adviser to that company in 2009.
Japan's campaign finance law bans contributions from companies that have been approved for subsidies within the past year. Nishikawa has said he "wasn't aware" this was illegal.
He told reporters Monday that he resigned to avoid becoming a distraction from parliamentary business.
"No matter how many times I explain myself, some people are just not going to understand," he said.
Yoshimasa Hayashi, no stranger to the post, was called back as a replacement. If Nishikawa had simply resigned spontaneously, his successor could not have been installed so quickly.
The farm portfolio gave Abe no end of trouble during his first stint as prime minister. Four of his agriculture ministers resigned, one of whom later committed suicide, under suspicion of financial impropriety. Hayashi broke the jinx by managing to hold on to the post for more than a year and a half until September's cabinet reshuffle.
The choice of two other ministers on that September slate, Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima, also proved ill-fated. Both quit on the same day last fall. The LDP went on to easily defend its lower house majority in a year-end election. Abe's current cabinet is mostly the same, except for Akinori Eto, who declined reappointment as defense minister amid questions about his campaign finances. But Abe kept Nishikawa. In all, one-third of the prime minister's 12 newly appointed cabinet memberss in September have since been replaced owing to money scandals.
The prime minister's office did not inform senior LDP officials that it had lined up a successor to Nishikawa until the last minute. Abe tried to explain why Monday night to Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki and other LDP leaders.
"I thought that Nishikawa could hold on a little longer," Abe reportedly said, adding that Hayashi was the only option to replace him.