Japanese Agriculture Minister Commits Suicide Amid Financial Scandal

Japan's agricultural minister died Monday after reportedly hanging himself just hours before he was to face questioning in parliament over a political scandal, officials said.

The minister was found in his apartment Monday unconscious and declared dead hours later. The death comes just ahead of important elections in July, and as support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet is plunging.

"We've confirmed that Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka is dead," said Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief government spokesman.

Shiozaki said police were investigating the cause of death. Japanese media reported he had been found hanging in his apartment, and left a suicide note.

Abe said although Matsuoka, 62, had been "under intense questioning" in parliament, he continued to be a useful member of the Cabinet.

"I am very disappointed," he said.

Matsuoka, the first Cabinet minister to kill himself while in office since World War II, faced criticism over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday afternoon for further questioning.

He allegedly claimed more than $236,600 in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office where utility costs are free.

Abe had defended Matsuoka, saying the agriculture minister reported to him all the alleged issues were properly handled and his dismissal was not needed.

Matsuoka's death was a blow to Abe.

Abe's government was just hit by a fresh scandal last week over the missing pension payment records for more than 50 million people, who have been unable to get the money they are entitled to receive.

On Monday, support for the Cabinet hit its lowest level since he took office last year.

Support for Abe's Cabinet fell to 32 percent, down 11 percentage points from a similar poll in April, according to a survey by the national newspaper Mainichi. A separate poll by the Nikkei business daily showed Abe's popularity falling to 41 percent, down 12 percentage points from the previous month.

Both cited dissatisfaction with the government's apparent loss of the pension payment records.

"This is a big blow for Abe's government ahead of the upper house elections in July," said political analyst Eiken Itagaki. "I believe Abe will struggle to maintain the slim majority the ruling coalition has in the upper house."

Matsuoka had also been dogged by scandal.

He was forced to apologize just three days after taking office for not declaring 1 million yen $8,500 in political donations from a scandal-linked group. 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.

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.