Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delayed his departure for three upcoming summits in Southeast Asia to sack and replace his justice minister who was widely criticised over an offhand remark he made about approving capital punishment.
Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi told reporters on Friday that he had submitted his resignation to Kishida, two days after he commented at a party meeting that his low-profile job only made the noon news when he used his “hanko” stamp to approve death penalties in the morning.
The remark quickly sparked criticism from the opposition as well as within Kishida’s governing party, which is already mired in controversy over its decades-long ties to the Unification Church, a South Korea-based religious group accused in Japan of improper recruitment and convincing adherents to make huge financial donations.
At least two other members of Kishida’s scandal-prone cabinet are also facing allegations of accounting irregularities.
“I carelessly used the term death penalty as an example”, which had made people and ministry officials “feel uncomfortable”, Hanashi said.
“I decided to resign to express my apology to the people and my determination to restart my political career.”
Hanashi said he had consulted with Kishida over the past two days about his possible resignation and was advised to do his best to apologise and explain his insensitive comments.
“I apologise and retract my remark that faced media reports that created an impression that I was taking my responsibility lightly,” he said on Thursday.
He made another apology earlier on Friday and denied any intention of resigning. But media reports later revealed he had made similar remarks at other meetings over the past three months.
Japan has faced international criticism for continuing to use capital punishment.
Kishida, who has a reputation as indecisive, denied that he took Hanashi’s comments lightly. He later told reporters he accepted Hanashi’s resignation because his “careless remark” had damaged public trust in the justice system.
Kishida said he appointed former Agriculture Minister Ken Saito, a Harvard-educated former trade ministry bureaucrat, as Hanashi’s replacement.
The scandal forced Kishida to delay his departure for a nine-day trip to attend the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, the Group of 20 meetings on the Indonesian island of Bali and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok.
Hanashi, a member of Kishida’s own faction in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, was in office only three months and is the second minister to be dismissed since the prime minister shuffled his cabinet in August in a failed attempt to turn around his government’s plunging popularity.
Last month, Daishiro Yamagiwa resigned as economy minister after facing criticism for failing to explain his links to the Unification Church.
The governing party’s links to the Unification Church surfaced after the July assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Ties to the church go back to Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who supported the religious group’s anti-communist stance and helped it take root in Japan.
A police investigation of Abe’s assassination also shed light on problems affecting family members of church followers, including poverty and neglect. Investigators said that Tetsuya Yamagami, who is accused of fatally shooting Abe on July 8, had initially wanted to kill the leader of the Unification Church, which he blamed for his family’s financial ruin.
Yamagami’s mother, a devout follower, had reportedly donated some 100 million yen ($720,461) to the church and had bankrupted his family.