Japanese prosecutors on Wednesday began questioning a former top defence official at the heart of a scandal that is exacerbating a parliamentary deadlock and threatens to ensnare the finance minister, domestic media said.
The scandal over former Vice Defence Minister Takemasa Moriya's links to a former defence contractor has stalled the government's efforts to enact a bill allowing resumption of a naval mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan, debate on which began in parliament's upper house the same day.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsushige Ono declined to comment on reports that Moriya was being questioned on suspicion of taking bribes.
But Ono told a news conference: "For someone who was in such an important government position to be the target of an investigation is extremely regrettable."
An opposition-controlled upper house panel has voted to call Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga to testify under oath in parliament next Monday over his suspected ties to the defence contractor, recently arrested on suspicion of embezzlement.
Moriya has admitted being treated to hundreds of rounds of golf and receiving other gifts from Motonobu Miyazaki, a former executive at Tokyo-based trading house Yamada Corp, but has denied under oath in parliament having done favours for the firm.
Opposition parties, which can delay enactment of new laws because they control the upper house, are against resuming Japan's mission to refuel US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean and say the defence scandal must be cleared up.
Lawmakers have said the affair could affect debate over next year's state budget, which needs to be enacted by March 31.
The stalemate in parliament has also sparked speculation that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will call an early snap election for parliament's more powerful lower house to seek a public mandate.
Moriya told parliament earlier this month that Nukaga, a two time former defence minister who has twice resigned in the past over scandals, had been at a dinner attended by himself and Miyazaki, but Nukaga has repeatedly denied being present.
Fukuda, 71, took office in September after predecessor Shinzo Abe resigned, ending a year plagued by scandals and gaffes that cost him five ministers, including one who committed suicide.
(Reporting by Linda Sieg, Editing by Michael Watson)