TOKYO -- Japan's economy minister told aides to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday that she is ready to step down amid accusations of funds misuse at political organizations associated with her.
Abe will decide whether to accept Yuko Obuchi's resignation when he returns from Italy on Saturday.
Obuchi, who took charge of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry only last month, has served as the face of Abe's campaign to promote the advancement of women. Her departure under a cloud would deal a major blow to the prime minister.
At issue is a series of theater trips for Obuchi supporters organized by two groups associated with the five-term lower house lawmaker. The groups' financial statements for 2010 and 2011 show discrepancies of roughly 26 million yen ($242,000 in today's money) between the fees apparently collected from trip participants and payments to the venue.
If the organizations shouldered part of the cost of the outings, they could run afoul of Japan's campaign finance rules, which bar gifts to voters in a lawmaker's district. Moreover, a similar trip in 2012, the year of the most recent lower house election, went unrecorded in financial statements.
Obuchi told a lower house committee Friday that she would promptly look into how the trips were budgeted but admitted that "not knowing is no excuse." Later she reportedly told Abe aides, "I don't think I'll be able to come up with a convincing explanation."
Opposition lawmakers have also seized on questionable expenses, including baby products, at Obuchi's political fund-raising organization. The embattled minister appears to have concluded that she would face relentless attacks from the opposition.
Should Obuchi step down, she would become the first cabinet member to resign since Abe staged a comeback as prime minister in December 2012. Finding a successor for Obuchi would prove difficult, given her celebrity status as a symbol of female empowerment. Abe's consistently high cabinet approval rating could take a hit as he tries to fill a post that carries a number of weighty responsibilities, including approving applications to restart nuclear reactors.
The opposition has laid into Abe's new team, and having learned from past political funding scandals involving cabinet ministers, aides are getting nervous. A spate of such imbroglios during Abe's first run as prime minister led to defeat for his Liberal Democratic Party in the 2007 upper house election and his own subsequent resignation.