Japan's agricultural minister died on Monday after reportedly hanging himself just hours before he was to face questioning in parliament in a political scandal, officials said. Toshikatsu Matsuoka, 62, was found in his apartment Monday unconscious and rushed to a hospital, where he was declared dead hours later, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police official said. "We've confirmed that Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka is dead," said Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief government spokesman. "We are greatly saddened."
Shiozaki said police were still investigating the cause of death, and he could not officially confirm it was a suicide. Japanese media reported he had been found hanging in his apartment, along with a suicide note, and efforts to resuscitate him at the hospital failed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said although Matsuoka had been "under intense questioning" in parliament, he continued to "use his expertise."
"I am very disappointed," he said.
Matsuoka had faced heavy criticism over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices in his offices, and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday afternoon for further questioning.
He was under fire for allegedly claiming more than 28 million yen (US$236,600; euro176,028.57) in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office, where utility costs are free. Opposition lawmakers had demanded his resignation, but Matsuoka claimed no wrongdoing.
Abe had defended Matsuoka, saying the agriculture minister reported to him all the alleged issues were properly handled and his dismissal was not needed.
Matsuoka was the first Cabinet minister to kill himself while in office since World War II.
Matsuoka's death was a blow to the government of Abe, which has been buffeted by scandals and was suffering from a recent plunge in support ratings.
Abe's government was hit by a fresh scandal last week over the missing pension payment records for more than 50 million people, who have been unable to get the money they are entitled to receive. Abe met with Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Hidenao Nakagawa Sunday night, asking him to submit special legislation including measures to remove statute of limitations to claim the pension payouts.
On Monday, support for Abe's government hit its lowest level since he took office last year.
Support for Abe's Cabinet fell to 32 percent, down 11 percentage points from a similar poll in April, a survey by the national newspaper Mainichi, taken over the weekend, showed. The government's disapproval rating rose to 44 percent, up from 33 percent, the Mainichi said. A separate poll by the Nikkei business daily showed Abe's popularity falling to 41 percent, down 12 percentage points from the previous month. His disapproval rating rose to 44 percent from 37 per cent.
Both Mainichi and Nikkei cited dissatisfaction with the government's apparent loss of the pension payment records. It was the latest problem for Abe's government, which has faced financial scandals involving several Cabinet ministers.
Matsuoka had also been dogged by scandal.
Along with the utilities questions, he apologized publicly just three days after taking office for not declaring 1 million yen (US$8,500; euro6,600) in political donations from a scandal-linked group. He acknowledged the undeclared funds, which came in the form of purchased tickets to a fundraising party, saying he was unaware that the contributions had not been reported.
Matsuoka had since corrected his political funds report for 2005. Japan's political funds law requires politicians to declare such donations when they exceed 200,000 yen (US$1,700; euro1,300), Kyodo News said. The contributions came from the World Business Expert Forum, a group associated with scandal-hit business consultant FAC Co., which was raided by authorities in June on suspicion of illegally collecting funds from investors, Kyodo said. Japan's suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. More than 32,000 Japanese took their own lives in 2004, the bulk of them older Japanese suffering financial woes as the country struggled through a decade of economic stagnation.