Cops: Japanese minister commits suicide
TOKYO – Japan’s agriculture minister died Monday after hanging himself just hours before he was to face questioning in a political scandal, officials said, dealing a powerful blow to the increasingly beleaguered government ahead of July elections.
Toshikatsu Matsuoka, 62, was found in his apartment Monday unconscious and declared dead hours later.
An autopsy showed that he died after hanging himself, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan Police official who spoke on customary condition of anonymity. The minister was found hanging from a door in his apartment earlier Monday, and he left a suicide note, according to local media reports.
Matsuoka’s death comes just ahead of upper house elections, and as support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet is plunging.
Abe, looking shaken after visiting the hospital where Matsuoka died, said although the minister had been “under intense questioning” in parliament, he had continued to be a useful member of the Cabinet.
“I am very disappointed,” he said. “When I saw his face, he seemed to be at peace.”
Matsuoka had faced heavy criticism over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices in his offices, and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday afternoon for further questioning.
He was under fire for allegedly claiming more than $236,600 in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office where utility costs are free. Opposition lawmakers had demanded his resignation, but Matsuoka denied any wrongdoing.
Abe had defended Matsuoka, saying that the agriculture minister reported to him all the alleged issues were properly handled and that his dismissal was not needed.
Matsuoka had been dogged by scandal. Along with the utilities questions, he apologized publicly just three days after taking office for not declaring $8,500 in political donations.
He acknowledged the undeclared funds, which came in the form of purchased tickets to a fundraising party, saying he was unaware that the contributions had not been reported. Matsuoka had since corrected his political funds report for 2005.
Japan’s political funds law requires politicians to declare such donations when they exceed $1,700, Kyodo News said. The contributions came from the World Business Expert Forum, a group associated with scandal-hit business consultant FAC Co., which was raided by authorities in June on suspicion of illegally collecting funds from investors, Kyodo said.
Japan’s suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. More than 32,000 Japanese took their own lives in 2004, the bulk of them older Japanese suffering financial woes as the country struggled through a decade of economic stagnation.