Japan's scandal-hit reconstruction minister Kenya Akiba stepped down on Tuesday, effectively dismissed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida over scandals in a fresh blow to his Cabinet that has seen four of its members forced to leave their ministerial posts within around two months.

Kishida has tapped Hiromichi Watanabe, who served as reconstruction minister between 2018 and 2019, as Akiba's successor, the prime minister told reporters after Akiba handed in his resignation.

"I take it seriously and my responsibility for having appointed the minister," the prime minister said.

Akiba, who has been embroiled in political funds and other scandals, has met growing calls to quit before a regular parliamentary session begins in late January, not just from opposition parties but also from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to which he belongs.

Reconstruction minister Kenya Akiba (R) and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a meeting at the prime minister's office on Dec. 27, 2022. (Kyodo)

Akiba's effective dismissal by Kishida is seen as prompted by the desire of the government and ruling party to avoid deliberations on the fiscal 2023 budget and other key bills from being hampered by opposition attacks on the minister.

After tendering his resignation to the premier, Akiba told reporters he has made the "tough decision" so as not to stall Diet deliberations.

His departure will take a heavy toll on Kishida, who has seen his Cabinet's approval ratings approach what is viewed as the "danger level" of 30 percent ahead of a string of local elections coming up in April.

New reconstruction minister Hiromichi Watanabe holds a press conference at his agency in Tokyo on Dec. 27, 2022. (Kyodo)

Still, the premier brushed off speculation of an imminent reshuffle of his Cabinet members to revive his sagging support rate, saying that he is not considering the move at least "during the year-end and new year days."

Within the ruling bloc, Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, said it is "extremely regrettable" that four minister have been forced to leave the Cabinet and called for the Cabinet to be "united to carry out their duties."

Meanwhile, Kenta Izumi, leader of the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, expressed readiness to grill Kishida for his appointments, saying, "The administration has almost collapsed."

Akiba, who took office in August in his first ministerial appointment, has been embroiled in allegations that he violated the public offices election law and misused political funds while also coming under fire over his relationship with the Unification Church.

Reconstruction minister Kenya Akiba holds a press conference in Tokyo in the morning on Dec. 27, 2022. (Kyodo)

A weekly tabloid magazine reported that Akiba had paid around 200,000 yen ($1,500) to his state-paid secretaries to help with his re-election bid in the lower house election in October 2021.

Such an action could constitute illegal payments to campaign staff under the election law.

The lawmaker also admitted that two political groups related to him paid 14 million yen in office rent to his wife and mother between 2011 and 2020. However, his mother failed to declare the taxable income.

Akiba had denied any links with the Unification Church, but he acknowledged in November that an LDP branch he heads paid 48,000 yen to two entities associated with the religious group in 2020 and 2021 as magazine subscription fees.

Connections between LDP lawmakers and the Unification Church, founded by a staunch anti-communist in South Korea in 1954, have become one of the major factors in dragging down the approval ratings of Kishida's Cabinet.

Tetsuya Yamagami, accused of fatally shooting former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July, told investigators that he held a grudge against the group over huge donations made by his mother. He targeted Abe in the belief the former prime minister had links to the group, according to investigative sources.

The support rate for Kishida's Cabinet dropped to 33.1 percent, the lowest since its launch in October last year, in the latest Kyodo News survey last week.

Daishiro Yamagiwa, who served as economic minister, was forced out of the Cabinet on Oct. 24, after a flurry of revelations of his ties with the group emerged. Then Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi and then internal affairs minister Minoru Terada also stepped down over gaffes and political funds scandals, both in November.

In a related move, Mio Sugita, a parliamentary vice minister for internal affairs and communications, also resigned Tuesday. Sugita, who took up the government post in August, had been under fire for her past discriminatory remarks against sexual or ethnic minorities.

Mio Sugita. (Kyodo)

New reconstruction minister Watanabe, an eighth-term lawmaker of the House of Representatives, served as a member of the prefectural assembly of Chiba, east of Tokyo, and then won a seat in the lower house in 1996.

After assuming such posts as senior vice minister of economy, trade and industry, the 72-year-old was appointed as a minister in charge of reconstructing the northeastern region, devastated by the 2011 massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

In August, he visited Myanmar and met with the country's junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.


Related coverage:

FOCUS: Japan's PM to be tested in local elections, Hiroshima G-7 summit

Japan PM Kishida to replace scandal-hit reconstruction minister: source

Ex-PM Abe's assassination Japan's top news story of 2022