Japan education minister denies illegal funds report

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Japan's education minister denied on Thursday a report by a weekly magazine that he illegally received political funds, just days after the farm minister resigned over similar allegations.

Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura, a close ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told a parliamentary panel that the article by the Shukan Bunshun magazine was incorrect. "It is different from the facts, and I am angry," he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said separately that he believed Mr Shimomura had not violated any laws. "I think he has fulfilled his responsibility to explain and that there is no legal problem at all," Suga told a news conference.

The magazine said most regional support groups for Mr Shimomura had not been registered as political organisations and appeared to have improperly collected funds on his behalf.

The magazine also said some of the fees collected from group members appeared to have been funnelled to the branch of Mr Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo that Mr Shimomura heads.

The magazine did not specify the total amounts involved.

Japanese election law mandates that any group that supports a politician or puts up a political candidate must register as a political group. Of 10 support groups for Mr Shimomura, only one based in Tokyo is registered as a political organisation, the magazine said.

Responding to questions by an opposition lawmaker, Mr Shimomura told the panel the groups were not for the purpose of collecting political funds but were voluntary groups of people in the education field engaging in "friendly activities".

He said he had returned funds said to have been donated to the LDP branch he heads by a person with possible ties to gangsters, as well as funds from non-Japanese citizens after finding out the source. Donations by non-Japanese are banned.

Mr Shimomura also said he would check whether private education firms from which he had received funds were themselves given government subsidies during the year prior to making the donations.

Farm Minister Koya Nishikawa quit on Monday amid questions over his political fundraising. Two ministers, including the trade minister, quit over similar scandals shortly after Mr Abe reshuffled his cabinet last year.