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A chief architect of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to resuscitate Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, resigned on after reports by a magazine that he had accepted money from the head of a construction company in exchange for political favors.
Akira Amari, the minister for economic revitalization, announced his resignation after markets closed in Japan. It was both a surprise and an embarrassing setback for Mr. Abe, who has used monetary easing by the Bank of Japan and other economic measures — a package known as Abenomics — to reverse the deflation and lackluster economic growth that have beleaguered the country for much of the past quarter-century. Mr. Amari, 66, was a close ally of Mr. Abe, and he led Japan’s negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade accord reached in October, after seven years of negotiations. He is the fourth minister of Mr. Abe’s government, but by far the most powerful, to resign over allegations of misconduct. “I feel responsible for appointing him, and I apologize to the Japanese people for this matter,” Mr. Abe said after Mr. Amari’s resignation.
Mr. Abe called the economy his “top priority,” and he immediately appointed to the post Nobuteru Ishihara, a former environment minister and the secretary general of Mr. Abe’s party, the Liberal Democrats, which has been in power throughout most of Japan’s postwar history. The Bank of Japan lowered its benchmark rate to -0.1 percent beginning Feb. 16. The bank said the step was needed to help stimulate the economy and hit its target of 2 percent annual inflation. Mr. Amari had been expected to travel to New Zealand next week for a signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Mr. Abe, while crediting Mr. Amari for his work on the trade accord, said the resignation would not affect the deal, as its provisions were “already basically agreed.” The scandal that led to Mr. Amari’s downfall unfolded quickly. The magazine Shukan Bunshun reported last week that a construction company had given Mr. Amari and his aides cash and gifts totaling 12 million yen, or about $100,000. The funds were not fully reported in public records, as required, the magazine said. The company was involved in a dispute with a semipublic housing agency over a public works contract, and it was seeking Mr. Amari’s help in resolving it, the magazine said. After the reports, Mr. Amari insisted at a news conference last Friday that he had not “broken any laws,” and he pledged to answer more questions after “confirming my memories.” But a follow-up piece in the magazine on Thursday quoted a company official, Takeshi Isshiki, as saying that Mr. Amari had twice pocketed envelopes containing ¥500,000 in cash — at his ministerial office in Tokyo in November 2013 and at his office in Kanagawa Prefecture in February 2014. It claimed that further unrecorded payments were made, for a total of tens of millions of yen.
The magazine also reported salacious details concerning two aides to Mr. Amari. According to the magazine, Mr. Isshiki accompanied them to bars and nightclubs in the Ginza area of Tokyo, where he covered the expenses. One aide took ¥3 million and used it for personal purposes, according to a report disclosed during Mr. Amari’s news conference. Mr. Amari acknowledged at that news conference that his aides had acted improperly, citing the investigation by an independent lawyer whom Mr. Amari had hired to look into the matter. The two aides have resigned. Mr. Amari also acknowledged that Mr. Isshiki had brought cash to his office, but he said that he had told an aide to properly record the money as a political donation. He strongly denied the magazine’s account that he had placed the envelope with the money in his pocket. “Putting money in my suit pocket in front of a visitor,” he said, “would be lacking dignity as a human being.” Mr. Amari said that he was resigning for the good of the country, and he noted that he had stayed on the job while battling tongue cancer. “I was appointed as the commander of Abenomics by Prime Minister Abe, and I was in charge of steering the Japanese economy, and I have been working on national service by risking my life for the last three years,” Mr. Amari said. “Without rest and sleep, I worked hard to break away from deflation, revive the economy and restore fiscal health, reform the social security and tax system, and move ahead on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Mr. Abe, who served a previous term as prime minister in 2006-7 before winning the job again in 2012, has seen his current tenure marred by several resignations. In October 2014, the justice minister, Midori Matsushima, and the minister for the economy, trade and industry, Yuko Obuchi, resigned — Ms. Matsushima over an election-law violation and Ms. Obuchi over misuse of political funds.