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Japan foreign minister resigns over Korean gift

06 marca, 2011

Japan\'s centre-left government suffered a blow Sunday when its foreign minister resigned for taking money from an ethnic Korean who is not a citizen, drawing fire from the conservative opposition.

Seiji Maehara, 48, had been seen as a likely successor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has struggled in the face of support ratings below 20 percent and a split parliament that has threatened to derail his reform agenda.

The ambitious Maehara came under pressure last week when he admitted he had accepted the equivalent of several hundred dollars in campaign donations in recent years from a Japanese-born woman of Korean ethnicity.

Under Japanese law, it is illegal for politicians to accept donations from a foreign national and the scandal has been all the more damaging to Maehara, who as foreign minister had taken a hawkish and strongly patriotic stance.

Maehara had been the most vocal cabinet minister in recent diplomatic battles Japan has fought with China and Russia over disputed territories, legacies of Japan\'s troubled wartime history with its neighbours.

After days of braving angry protests from conservative politicians in the Diet legislature and on TV talk shows, Maehara Sunday evening met Kan to resign, then announced his decision in a televised press conference.

"I apologise to the Japanese people for stepping down after only six months and provoking distrust over a problem with my political funding, although I have sought to pursue a clean style of politics," Maehara said.

For Kan -- the Democratic Party of Japan\'s (DPJ) second premier since it ended half a century of conservative rule in a 2009 landslide -- the loss of a popular minister compounds serious political troubles.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has signalled high hopes of retaking the levers of power in Asia\'s second-largest economy and has challenged Kan to call a snap election -- which it thinks it would win.

The LDP and its allies have threatened to paralyse the Kan government by using their upper house majority to block bills to finance the record 1.1-trillion-dollar budget for the fiscal year starting April 1.

This would threaten a government shutdown at a time when the DPJ is seeking to rejuvenate the five-trillion-dollar economy, whittle down massive public debt and implement policies to reinvigorate a graying population.

The troubled premier also faces a party revolt, with 16 of his own lawmakers who are close to his DPJ nemesis, scandal-tainted faction boss Ichiro Ozawa, boycotting the government vote for the budget last week.

Kan is Japan\'s fifth premier in five years and many political and media commentators have predicted in recent weeks that he may quit soon, continuing the country\'s damaging tradition of revolving-door leadership.

For Maehara -- a media-savvy politician once likened to Britain\'s Tony Blair -- the donations affair came as a sudden and damaging blow. He is the first minister to resign since Kan reshuffled his cabinet in January.

Maehara, who graduated from Kyoto University in 1987, studied at the private Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, which uses rigorous physical training as part of its course to forge modern political leaders.

The six-term lawmaker was first elected in 1993 and in 2005 became president of the then-opposition DPJ, defeating Kan in an internal party election.

Hailing from the conservative wing of the DPJ, Maehara has taken a hardline stance against communist North Korea and often criticised China\'s increasingly assertive stance in the region and its military buildup.

The scandal that cost him his job involves a 72-year-old Korean BBQ restaurant owner in his native Kyoto, who never became a Japanese citizen but is a permanent resident, and whom Maehara has known since childhood.

Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula until the end of World War II, is home to nearly one million ethnic Koreans, many former forced labourers or their children. Some have taken Japanese nationality, others have not.

On Friday, as the political furore escalated, Maehara admitted to having accepted a donation of at least 50,000 yen ($610) from the woman despite a law that bans contributions from foreign individuals or entities.

The opposition claims he took more than $2,400.

Maehara may be replaced by State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Takeaki Matsumoto, or Kan could perform the dual roles of premier and foreign minister for some time, according to Kyodo News.