Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's justice minister resigned today in an imbroglio over moves to tighten controls on religions that tainted both the ruling coalition's largest party and Japan's new self-proclaimed reformist opposition party.
Tomoharu Tazawa, accused of trying to hush up a planned interrogation of a 200-million yen ($2-million) loan he had received from the Rissho Kosei Kai, a large Buddhist group, said he was stepping down to avoid further controversy.
"It would be impermissible if parliamentary deliberations were delayed because I remained in the Cabinet," he told reporters at a news conference after resigning. He cited the importance of speedy enactment of a supplementary budget designed to resuscitate Japan's moribund economy.
Hiroshi Miyazawa, 74, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and a Liberal Democratic Party member of the upper house, was named to replace Tazawa.
Tazawa admitted that he had received $2 million in a loan from the Buddhist group that supports both him personally and his Liberal Democratic Party, and that he had neglected to report it as a political contribution. But he again denied an accusation that he had promised to oppose revising the Religion Corporation Law if the opposition New Frontier Party would drop plans to question him about the loan.
The New Frontier Party, an amalgam of groups that put reformist Morihiro Hosokawa into the prime minister's post in 1993, ending 38 years of Liberal Democrat rule, denied making any deal with Tazawa.
But, in fact, the party's representative entrusted with questioning the government on Friday failed to take up the issue. Later, he claimed he had "run out of time."
Coming after years of efforts to clean up corruption and break links between politicians and special interest groups, the revelations shocked the political world. Rarely in the past has a single scandal equally tainted ruling and opposition parties.
The Liberal Democrats, the major prop of Murayama's tripartite coalition government, are widely viewed as pushing a revision of the religion law to draw the public's attention to the support that the New Frontier Party receives from Soka Gakkai (Value-Creating Society), a Buddhist laymen's group that provides both votes and candidates to the opposition group.
In a July election for the upper house, the New Frontier Party astonished political experts by polling more votes than the Liberal Democratic Party, thanks to Soka Gakkai's support.
The New Frontier Party is backing the Soka Gakkai in its opposition to revision of the religion law. The party and the Buddhist group claim that moves to hand the Education Ministry the right to investigate religions on a nationwide basis pose an ultimate threat to freedom of religion.
Initially, demands for revision of the religion law arose after revelations of widespread crimes allegedly committed by the 10,000-member Aum Supreme Truth cult. The cult is accused of spreading poison gas in March on the Tokyo subways that killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500 others. Critics complained that the present religion law, under which local governments are authorized to grant religions tax-exempt status, contains no provisions for control or investigation of religious groups.