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Japan farm minister quits over political funding allegations

[TOKYO] Japanese Farm Minister Koya Nishikawa quit after allegations he accepted improper political donations, marking the third resignation of a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet in less than six months.

Mr Nishikawa allegedly accepted donations from a company in the sugar industry while involved in negotiations over agricultural tariffs in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, Japanese media including the Asahi newspaper had reported. Mr Nishikawa, who started the job in September, will be replaced by former agriculture minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Mr Abe said in a televised broadcast Monday.

"Nishikawa requested to quit so precious deliberation time wouldn't be taken up with a personal issue," Mr Abe said at his official residence in Tokyo. "I'm responsible for appointments and I apologize to the people for this sudden resignation." The move comes after two female minsters, Yuko Obuchi and Midori Matsushima, quit in October over allegations of financial impropriety. Mr Abe recovered from that double blow to win by a landslide in December's general election. Still, a series of scandal-linked resignations contributed to the unraveling of his first administration in 2007 after less than a year.

"Even though Abe is seen as a strong political leader, he's still struggling to make the right appointments," said independent political analyst Minoru Morita. "This serves as a reminder to Abe that his economic policies may not go as smoothly as he hopes."

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Mr Nishikawa was part of Japan's team negotiating with the US and other nations over tariffs as part of the TPP trade talks. As part of that effort, Abe is pushing to change the country's farm policies to ease protections for the agriculture industry as part of a broader push for structural reforms to spur economic growth.

Mr Abe has made progress in efforts to weaken the farm lobby's influence, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party this month managed to remove the national agricultural cooperative's power to audit local farming groups.

"Nishikawa's resignation won't have any impact on Japan's agricultural policy, including TPP negotiation and reform of the JA group, as the cabinet office has taken the initiative in planning and deciding those policies," said Nobuyuki Chino, professor of business management at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and the president of Continental Rice Corp. Mr Hayashi won't have any problems taking over Mr Nishikawa's duties, he said.

Nishikawa said on Feb 17 that he'd returned all 1 million yen (US$8,400) he received from a company operated by a sugar industry association, according to the Asahi. Sugar is one of the five key agricultural products that Japan wants to protect in any TPP agreement.

Mr Abe's previous spell as prime minister was hampered by his appointments of farm ministers.

Toshikatsu Matsuoka killed himself in May 2007 while being questioned in parliament for receiving donations from contractors associated with a developer under investigation for rigging construction bids.

His replacement, Norihiko Akagi, resigned a few months later over separate impropriety allegations. While his successor, Takehiko Endo, lasted just a week in the job - again over a financial misdemeanor.