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Politics

Rapid-fire resignations show Abe is losing his touch

Gaffes and scandals bring concern about personnel choices back to the fore

Katsuyuki Kawai stepped down as Japan's justice minister on Thursday, less than a week after Isshu Sugawara's resignation as trade minister. (Photos by Uichiro Kasai and Kai Fujii)

TOKYO -- The resignation of two cabinet members in a week and a string of gaffes by other ministers suggest Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government may be turning careless and even smug under his third term.

Abe accepted the resignation of Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai on Thursday, shortly after the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine reported allegations of election law violations by Kawai and his wife, a lawmaker in Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.

"I was the one who appointed him. I feel grave responsibility," the prime minister told reporters, adding that he must "take the harsh criticism seriously."

Kawai's quick resignation allowed him to avoid grilling by opposition lawmakers in parliament, helping to minimize the damage to Abe's administration. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Isshu Sugawara stepped down with similar speed last Friday over allegations of illegal gifts to supporters.

Abe has had rough patches in the past, but two back-to-back resignations of cabinet members in a week are unusual.

Abe's first government in 2006 and 2007 was battered by four resignations, but these came months apart. When Justice Minister Midori Matsushima and Trade Minister Yuko Obuchi stepped down on the same day in 2014, Abe dissolved the lower house and called a snap election to reestablish his government's footing.

The current cabinet had raised eyebrows since it was formed this past September. The revamped lineup included 13 new faces, the most during Abe's current stint as prime minister.

Many seemed to be chosen for their connections to those seen as potential successors to Abe, including Kawai and Sugawara, who are close to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, one of Abe's closest allies.

Looking at the lineup, opposition lawmakers said they "gained extra ammunition to attack" the government.

Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda apologized this week for saying that students taking new English proficiency exams for university admissions starting next year should compete "according to their standing," seeming to downplay inequality of opportunity.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Taro Kono apologized for joking about attracting rain after Japan was hit by three typhoons in his short tenure. Kono served as foreign minister before the latest reshuffle.

Abe is set to become Japan's longest-serving prime minister in November. While opposition parties have formed a united front against his government, they remain too weak to pose much threat, and would-be successors are not yet circling in anticipation of his downfall. A Nikkei poll conducted shortly after Sugawara's resignation gave Abe's cabinet a 57% approval rating.

But the scandals will undoubtedly make it harder for the prime minister to pursue his goals in parliament, including his longtime ambition of revising the constitution.

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