The sense of crisis swirling around the cabinet of Shinzo Abe, prime minister, intensified Tuesday when a former executive of a company at the centre of a bid-rigging scandal fell to his death in an apparent suicide.
The death followed the suicide on Monday of Toshikatsu Matsuoka, farm minister, the first cabinet member to kill himself since the second world war.
Mr Matsuoka died hours before he had been due to testify to a parliamentary committee investigating allegations that he received donations from companies awarded contracts by Japan Green Resources Agency (J-Green), a government affiliate.
Shinichi Yamazaki, a former executive director of the public corporation that became J-Green in 2003, had been investigated by prosecutors for his alleged role in organising bid-rigging. Mr Yamazaki was due to be questioned again Tuesday, according to Kyodo news agency.
J-Green is an independent administrative agency affiliated with the agriculture ministry, which was headed by Mr Matsuoka until Monday. Local media have reported that Mr Matsuoka, who was born in the prefecture where bids were allegedly rigged, had received political donations from beneficiaries of construction contracts.
The farm minister, who had also been accused of falsifying official expense claims, had consistently denied any wrongdoing. Mr Abe had stuck by his appointment, a decision that is now being widely questioned.
Mr Yamazaki was more recently head of an association formed by 300 construction companies regularly awarded contracts by J-Green. The association was disbanded after a raid by the Fair Trade Commission last October. Last week, two J-Green officials were arrested by Tokyo prosecutors.
The scandal, which has called into question Mr Abe’s commitment to stamping out corruption and old-fashioned money politics, raises the possibility of defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic party in July’s upper house election, according to political analysts. Mr Abe’s LDP holds only a slim majority in the less powerful upper house.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan pressed its political advantage Tuesday by calling for a no-confidence vote on an unrelated issue that has also damaged the government’s credibility.
This month, it emerged that the health and welfare ministry lost records related to 50m pension payments, potentially damaging people’s pension prospects. The opposition is objecting to the passage of a bill that would transfer national pension functions from the Social Insurance Agency until the mess is resolved.
The opposition bloc will have to gauge carefully its response to the “money-politics scandal” because of the sensitivity surrounding Mr Matsuoka’s suicide. However, people close to the leadership are confident that the issue will damage the prime minister’s standing.
“There is a common view that this [scandal] will hit the Abe administration hard,” one said. “After all, it was Abe who was responsible for appointing this kind of minister. There is a sense of caution and opportunity.”