• Economy Minister Amari set to give press conference Thursday
  • Premier seeks to retain Amari in key economy, trade role

A key cabinet ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to face the media Thursday, a week after the emergence of tabloid allegations that threaten to disrupt passage of the budget for the coming fiscal year.

QuickTake Abenomics

Abe is seeking to retain Economy Minister Akira Amari, Japan’s top negotiator on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, after claims in a weekly magazine that he and his staff took at least 12 million yen ($102,000) from a construction company in exchange for favors. Regardless of whether he stays or goes, the allegations could weaken support for Abe six months ahead of national elections.

"He will fulfill his responsibility to explain," Abe told parliament Wednesday. "After explaining, I want him to push on with his important role of economic revitalization and the TPP."

Much may hinge on whether Amari personally took cash from the unidentified company based in Chiba prefecture, as alleged in the Shukan Bunshun magazine. A follow-up piece in the magazine published Thursday quotes a representative of the firm as saying Amari twice pocketed envelopes containing 500,000 yen in cash. It also claims that further unrecorded payments were made, bringing the total to tens of millions of yen.

At Thursday’s press conference, Amari is likely to deny that he personally received money from an official at the company, Nippon TV reported, citing an unidentified person. The briefing will be in the evening, Fuji TV said.

Fulfilling Responsibility

Amari told parliament Wednesday afternoon that parts of the magazine article don’t correlate with his memory. "Once I’ve properly carried out the necessary investigation, I’ll fulfill my responsibility to explain so as not to arouse suspicion among the public," he said.

Support for Abe has so far withstood the allegations, and his ability to ride out the storm before upper house elections in the summer may hinge on how convincing an explanation Amari offers. Opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada told parliament this week that Abe also had a "serious" responsibility to provide an explanation.

Abe has buckled under such pressure before. His first stint in office lasted less than a year, ending with his resignation in 2007 after a series of cabinet scandals contributed to a slump in public support. He’s developed resilience since. Returning to power in 2012 -- after Japan cycled through six premiers in six years under the Liberal Democratic Party or DPJ -- Abe has had relatively high popularity despite the loss of three ministers over alleged impropriety.

Memory ‘Fuzzy’

Amari, 66, has apologized for the fuss and denied breaking the law. He’s also made little comment on the details, saying his memory of events is "fuzzy." His Thursday briefing will come before the parliamentary budget committee -- often used as a venue for the opposition to attack the government -- opens Friday. Yukio Edano, secretary general of the DPJ, said Wednesday the scandal would make it hard to begin debate on the budget on time.

Even so, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda said Wednesday the government plans to send Amari to the Trans-Pacific Partnership signing ceremony in New Zealand on Feb. 4, and Kyodo News reported he’s likely to remain in his position for the time being.

Two polls published Monday found backing for Abe’s cabinet was almost unchanged at just under 50 percent after the allegations were made public, although respondents expressed dissatisfaction over Amari’s reaction. Abe’s support has recovered from unpopular policy steps such as the expansion of the powers of the military last year, and backing for opposition parties languishes in single figures.

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