Japan’s PM Kishida ditches minister over ‘careless’ remarks

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delayed his departure Friday to Southeast Asia’s three upcoming summits in order to sack and find a replacement for his justice minister over a remark he made about capital punishment that was criticized as inappropriate.

Justice Minister Yasuhiro Hanashi told reporters he submitted his resignation Friday to Kishida, two days after he made a comment at a party meeting that his low-profile job makes lunchtime news only when he uses his “hanko” stamp to approve executions in the morning.

The remark quickly sparked criticisms from the opposition and even within Kishida’s governing party and could further shake his government, which is already mired in a controversy over its decades-long ties with the Unification Church, a South Korea-based religious sect accused in Japan of problematic recruitment and brainwashing adherents into making huge donations.

Kishida later told reporters that he accepted Hanashi’s resignation because his “careless remark” damaged the public trust in justice policies and could stall progress of parliamentary discussion on key issues, including support measures for people with financial and family troubles because of the church.

In response to the resignation, Kishida also acknowledged that the government had “hurt the trust of the people in the administration of justice.”

Kishida said he tapped former Agriculture Minister Ken Saito as a replacement.

Hanashi said he had consulted with Kishida over the past two days about his possible resignation but was advised to primarily do his utmost to apologize and explain.

Hanashi had apologized after being slammed for giving the impression that he takes executions lightly, at a time Japan already faces international criticism for maintaining capital punishment.

Despite expressing his apology for the comments, media reports later revealed he had made similar remarks at other meetings over the past three months.

Kishida was forced to urgently deal with the problem with his Cabinet before leaving on a nine-day trip. He said he planned to leave Tokyo early Saturday to attend all scheduled meetings at the ASEAN summit, as well as Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.

Hanashi, a member of Kishida’s own faction within the governing Liberal Democratic Party, was in office only three months and will be the second minister to be dismissed since the prime minister shuffled his Cabinet in August in a failed attempt to turn around his government’s plunging popularity.

Last month, Daishiro Yamagiwa resigned as economy minister after facing criticism for failing to explain to his links to the Unification Church.

The governing party’s church links surfaced after the July assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The governing party’s church ties go back to Abe’s grandfather and former leader Nobusuke Kishi, who supported the church’s anti-communist stance and helped it take root in Japan.

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