Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has ended the year facing fierce political headwinds after his reconstruction minister became the fourth member of his scandal-hit cabinet to resign in two months.
Kenya Akiba announced his resignation on Tuesday after opposition MPs accused him of election law violations and of having ties to the Unification church, a controversial religious group whose connections to the ruling party have sent Kishida’s approval ratings to record lows.
“I take my responsibility very seriously as the person who makes appointments,” Kishida told reporters after Akiba had quit. “By rising to my political responsibilities, I hope to be fulfilling my duties as prime minister.”
Kishida effectively ordered Akiba to resign, according to Japanese media reports, in part to prevent the scandal from interfering with upcoming parliamentary debates over a budget bill, which includes a dramatic rise in defence spending that Kishida has argued is essential to counter growing threats to Japan’s security from China and North Korea.
Akiba has denied allegations of mishandling political and election funds and of having ties to the Unification church – more commonly known as the Moonies.
Revelations that the ultra-conservative religious group has connections with large numbers of Liberal Democratic party (LDP) politicians have dogged Kishida since the assassination in July of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Tetsuya Yamagami, who is suspected of shooting Abe as he made an election speech in the western city of Nara, has told investigators that he targeted the politician because he believed he had ties to the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.
Akiba has denied any links with the church but acknowledged that the LDP branch he leads paid ¥48,000 (£299) to two entities associated with the group that he claimed were magazine subscriptions, according to Kyodo news agency.
Kishida has ordered an investigation into the Unification church’s finances and organisation, and this month backed a new law to help victims of its controversial fundraising methods, but Akiba’s resignation has prompted renewed criticism of his political judgment.
The economic revitalisation minister, Daishiro Yamagiwa, resigned in October after failing to explain his ties to the church. Last month, the justice minister, Yasuhiro Hanashi, quit after making a poorly judged joke about the death penalty, while the internal affairs minister, Minoru Terada, was effectively sacked over a political funds scandal.
The continuing controversy over the Unification church is expected to continue into next year, just as the cabinet’s approval ratings approach the “danger level” of 30% and with Kishida’s party facing potentially damaging local elections in the spring.
Support for the cabinet has slumped to 33.1%, according to a Kyodo poll conducted last week – its lowest level since Kishida became prime minister in October last year.