Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself

Japanese agricultural minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka received months of publicity for claiming questionable reimbursements and expenses and for connections with business executives arrested for rigging bids for public works projects. After he was found dead, hanging from a dog leash in an apparent suicide, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration was subjected to even greater public scrutiny and suffered loss of support, culminating in the prime minister’s resignation in September, 2007.

Summary of Event

Toshikatsu Matsuoka was a six-time elected member of Japan’s house of representatives for Kumamoto Prefecture’s third district. He served as the minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries in the Shinzo Abe cabinet. The sixty-two-year-old Matsuoka committed suicide on May 28, 2007, during the middle of a financial scandal, marking the first time a Japanese cabinet minister killed himself since World War II. (Army minister Anami Korechika committed suicide on news of Japan’s surrender.) [kw]Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself (May 28, 2007)
Matsuoka, Toshikatsu
Abe, Shinzo
Matsuoka, Toshikatsu
Abe, Shinzo
[g]Asia;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
[g]Japan;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
[c]Murder and suicide;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
[c]Corruption;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
[c]Government;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
[c]Politics;May 28, 2007: Japanese Politician Charged with Corruption Hangs Himself[03770]
Akagi, Norihiko
Yamamoto, Taku

Matsuoka’s duties included work on free-trade agreements with Australia and on diplomacy with the United States over beef-import concerns, but he received the most attention when he announced a plan to certify Japanese food restaurants outside Japan. He wanted certification to help distinguish pseudo-Japanese food restaurants from those that are “genuine.” Many foreign media criticized the system, and Matsuoka was forced to retract his plan.

The real political damage to Matsuoka sprang from questions he faced over high utility expenses, for which he had claimed more than 28 million yen ($236,600) from government funds. Similarly high expenses ($42,000) for utilities had been claimed as far back as 2005. Matsuoka tried to quiet the scandal by saying that the money had been spent on purified water. One oft-quoted line from Matsuoka, “Nobody drinks tap water anymore,” led The New York Times to suggest that he made statements “bordering on the absurd.” Matsuoka had become the butt of national and international ridicule, prompting television crews and opposition politicians to visit his office to request tastings of the costly purified water.

In addition to the utilities expenses, public records also show that Matsuoka claimed another $1.2 million as “office costs” from 2001 to 2005, even though his office in a parliamentary building was rent-free. Opposition members of Parliament called for his resignation over these expenses, though Prime Minister Abe vigorously defended his minister, often against the advice of some within his own party, saying Matsuoka had fulfilled his legal responsibilities in making these declarations and that he had detailed knowledge of agricultural policy. In response to the growing public outcry, the governing Liberal Democratic Party proposed new rules requiring receipts for every expense exceeding 50,000 yen, or about $410. However, the proposal backfired, drawing attention to the policy that lawmakers are not required to file receipts for many of the expenses they report to the government. Opposition parties responded by calling for receipts for all expenses, a requirement the governing party traditionally had resisted.

The utilities debacle was just one of a series of money scandals and policy missteps that plagued the Abe administration. Critics pointed to Abe’s weak management skills and poor political judgment. Matsuoka was embroiled in other financially related scandals, having been forced to apologize shortly after taking office for failing to declare political donations amounting to $75,000. In a parallel investigation by Tokyo prosecutors that was coming to a head the week prior to Matsuoka’s suicide, a company was linked to a bid-rigging scandal involving road construction projects administered by Matsuoka’s ministry. Six construction-industry executives and consultants were arrested and accused of violating antimonopoly laws by colluding on bids.

The Japanese press reported that the vice farm minister, Taku Yamamoto, had said during a speech that Matsuoka might have used the money on Geishas geishas in the Asakusa entertainment district of Tokyo, but Yamamoto later retracted his statement, saying that he intended it as a joke. The accusation has never been proved.

Matsuoka took his own life in his apartment, hours before scheduled questioning in the national parliament by an audit committee in connection with political donations and allegations of misappropriation of government funds. He was discovered unconscious, hanging by his dog leash, in his pajamas, from the hinge of a door in his living room. He died at Keio University hospital in Tokyo shortly afterward. A police postmortem examination confirmed that he died after he had hanged himself. Police refused to comment on reports in the Japanese press that he had left a number of suicide notes in his apartment, including ones addressed to Japan’s prime minister and the public apologizing for his actions. “He was certainly under pressure in Parliament,” Abe said of Matsuoka after his death. “He was giving his all to the job, and I had very high expectations of him, so this is really too bad.”

Suicides have a longstanding tradition in Japan, where they are seen as a face-saving move to avoid public humiliation. The suicide of someone who has disgraced him- or herself, or his or her office, is likely to be seen not as a means of escape from the situation but rather as a way of rectifying that problem. Japan’s suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world and reached a record high in 2007. In 2004, more than thirty-two thousand Japanese nationals killed themselves.


“The effects on the cabinet will be great,” a visibly shaken Prime Minister Abe declared as he left to attend a wake for the deceased minister. “I feel deeply conscious of my responsibility as prime minister, and as the one who appointed him.”

Political analysts such as Minoru Morita, who runs an independent research institute in Tokyo, said the suicide could hurt Abe by drawing still more scrutiny to the scandals. After Matsuoka’s suicide, Abe’s approval rating dropped from 43 percent to remain below 30 percent for months. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party consequently suffered great losses in the election to the upper house of councillors on July 29, losing its majority, while the Democratic Party of Japan managed to gain the largest margin since its formation in 1996. Matsuoka’s replacement, Norihiko Akagi, who was suspected of unethical conduct similar to that of Matsuoka, resigned after the election. Abe was free from leadership contests from within the ruling party but was nevertheless obliged to resign as a result of the mounting pressures on his administration. Matsuoka, Toshikatsu
Abe, Shinzo

Further Reading

  • Fackler, Martin. “Facing Inquiry, Japanese Official Commits Suicide.” The New York Times, May 28, 2007. Next-day reportage in the international press of Matsuoka’s suicide and its political ramifications.
  • Mamoru, Iga. The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Examines the problem of suicide in Japan; discusses Japanese values, culture, and pressures for economic success; and describes the suicides of five prominent authors.
  • “Political Suicide.” The Economist, June 6, 2007. An article suggesting that Matsuoka’s suicide had deep consequences for Japanese politics, turning a rising Abe administration into one with serious problems.
  • Shinzo, Abe. “For a Beautiful Country: The New Prime Minister of Japan Speaks Out.” Vertical Inc., October 23, 2007. Offers a rare inside look at one of the most controversial and lauded prime ministers to be put in office, explaining the Japanese prime minister’s pro-United States stand on world politics.

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