Japanese Farm and Forests Minister Kills Himself

TOYKO, Japan, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - Japanese Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka commited suicide on Monday in Tokyo, the Metropolitan Police Department said. His death sent shockwaves through the Japanese government as he was the first Japanese cabinet minister to have killed himself since World War II.

Matsuoka, 62, hanged himself in in the living room of his residence in a parliamentary housing building in Tokyo's Akasaka District hours before he was to be questioned in parliament over allegations of bid-rigging for public works.

He was taken to Keio University Hospital, where his death was confirmed at about 2 pm.

Matsuoka

Japanese Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka (Photo courtesy Government of Japan)
Opposition parties have criticized Matsuoka for failing to give a clear explanation of more than 20 million yen claimed as utility expenses for five years until 2005 for his office in the Diet members' building, although he used a cost-free official parliamentary office.

More recently, it was revealed that Matsuoka's office took a political donation from construction firms that received a contract for work tendered by the semi-governmental Japan Green Resources Agency.

Prosecutors raided a Kumamoto Prefecture office of the Japan Green Resources Agency in late May, seeking evidence that the bidding for the construction job was rigged. Matsuoka represented the Kumamoto Prefecture in the House of Representatives.

Matsuoka had repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The four year old Japan Green Resources Agency is engaged in the construction and improvement of forestry roads "to utilize abundant forest resources," the creation of forests "to conserve water resources," and the improvement of farmland and agricultural infrastructure.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a press conference Monday that Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi has replaced Matsuoka as acting agriculture minister on a temporary basis.

Wakabayashi

Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi (Photo courtesy Government of Japan)
"The fact is, an appropriate person to take his place may not be easily found," Shiozaki said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, "As he was a competent minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the effects on the administration will be significant."

The premier said he is keenly aware of his "responsibility" for Matsuoka's action as the one who appointed the lawmaker of his Liberal Democratic Party to the Cabinet post. Matsuoka assumed his post last September, when Abe took office.

A by-election to fill Matsuoka's seat will be held on the same day as the upper house election, now believed to be July 22, according to the government.

Matsuoka was a graduate of the agriculture department of Tottori University, and he worked for the agriculture ministry before entering politics.

He was elected to the Lower House six times and served as the chairman of the Lower House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and parliamentary vice minister and senior vice minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

Condolences came in from around the world.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said, "I was saddened to learn today of the death of Japanese agricultural minister Matsuoka. Since coming into office last fall, he had worked to resolve trade challenges, which brought us together on several occassions. He ably represented Japan's agricultural interests. My condolences to Minister Matsuoka's family and to the people of Japan."