Japanese Officials Push Legislation Aimed at Ending Political Scandals

Japan's beleaguered government overcame opposition hurdles early Friday and pushed through legislation aimed at cleaning up a major political scandal before parliamentary elections due later this year.

The lower house of parliament approved a pair of bills intended to resolve the disappearance of records affecting some 50 million pension cases, one of a series of scandals tainting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government.

The scandals, which include separate allegations of bid-rigging and misuse of public funds, culminated earlier this week with the suicide of Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka just before he was to face questioning in parliament.

Matsuoka was accused of receiving illicit political donations from contractors with a government-affiliated organization.

The ruling coalition was eager to quickly pass legislation that would lift the statute of limitations for pensioners seeking benefits lost by record-keeping errors. A second bill would abolish the Social Insurance Agency and transfer pension oversight to another entity.

The coalition wants to pass the bills into law before the parliamentary session ends on June 23 — less than a month before the July 22 elections for the upper house.

The bills will go to the upper house later Friday, parliamentary official Etsuro Ninomiya said. Debate is not expected to begin until Monday, Kyodo News agency reported.

"These two bills are extremely important to ... restore trust in the pension system," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "We have answered the demands of the opposition parties."

Opposition parties had accused the government of trying to push the legislation through quickly.

"Once again, they are trying to cover up problems," said Yoshiaki Takaki, lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party. "We will firmly protest such a move. We should deliberate the bills and clarify what the problems are."

In a bid to slow the bills' progress, opposition members submitted a no-confidence vote against Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa and introduced censure motions against two lower house committee chairmen ahead of deliberations on the bills.

But the motions were all voted down as Abe's ruling bloc has a majority in the lower house.

As the imbroglio mounted, Abe's support ratings were falling. The Asahi newspaper released a poll on Tuesday showing approval for Abe's Cabinet falling to 36 percent, the lowest since he took office last September.

In one of the world's most rapidly aging societies, the pension scandal involves a lot of money.

The Health Ministry estimates that if the bills clear parliament, about 250,000 pensioners would be entitled to receive pension benefits worth an additional total 95 billion yen, Japanese newspapers and Kyodo News agency reported.

The ministry could not immediately confirm the reports.

The pension issue was potentially damaging to Abe. Asahi reported on Tuesday that a series of polls showed about 85 percent of respondents chose pensions as the issue they were most concerned about.