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Japanese lawmaker resigns in scandal

A JAPANESE Cabinet member resigned yesterday following media reports that he misused a free train pass for lawmakers for a private trip with his girlfriend.

The resignation of the deputy minister is a major embarrassment for Prime Minister Taro Aso, who is struggling to regain public support for his Liberal Democratic Party ahead of imminent elections while the chief opposition party has been stung by a scandal.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshitada Konoike, 68, handed his resignation to Aso, said top government spokesman Takeo Kawamura.

Kawamura said the resignation was officially for health reasons because Konoike had been hospitalized, but added he had "an impression" it could be the scandal, which was published in a tabloid magazine and splashed across morning newspapers.

The Weekly Shincho magazine reported that Konoike, who is married, had a three-day trip to a hot springs resort in Atami in late April with an unidentified woman and used his special free pass - a privilege for national lawmakers for use on business trips - for traveling on a bullet train. It was not clear if he used the pass to pay for tickets for the woman, who reportedly took a separate train.

Strict standards

Konoike, who did not comment, was replaced by Katsuhito Asano.

"We must not mix up official duties with personal affairs, and top government officials are expected to follow strict ethical standards," Kawamura said, calling the scandal "extremely unpleasant."

"I'm afraid Prime Minister Aso may have to face criticism over (Konoike's) appointment," Kawamura said.

Aso's public support rating plunged to about 10 percent earlier this year after a spate of gaffes and scandals. Many saw him and his party as fragmented and lacking in leadership. But his rating has improved to about 30 percent since then amid deepening anger over a scandal involving the top opposition party.

Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, announced his resignation on Monday to keep a political funding scandal involving one of his aides from pulling his party down in the elections. Prosecutors allege that Ozawa's political funding organization received illegal donations. He denied any wrongdoing himself.


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