TOKYO - A junior minister of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) quit on Friday (April 5) amid mounting criticism over his brazen comments that he upgraded a road project as an "unspoken favour" to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso.
Seen as an influence-peddling attempt, the remarks by Mr Ichiro Tsukada have drawn flak as they involve "sontaku", the once-archiac term that has entered the national lexicon following recent political scandals in which government documents were falsified or destroyed.
The politically-sensitive term refers to a workplace culture in which a subordinate surmises and acts on an assumed wish of their superiors, even if it is illegal or unethical.
Mr Tsukada, 55, a senior vice-minister at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, said on Monday (April 1) that he upgraded a road construction project that would link Mr Abe's constituency of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi prefecture to Mr Aso's constituency of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka prefecture.
This has been derisively dubbed the "Abe-Aso road".
While Mr Tsukada, a two-term Upper House lawmaker, acknowledged that neither Mr Abe nor Mr Aso had explicitly asked for the upgrade, he said this was only because they are prevented from doing so due to their roles in government.
"I will practise 'sontaku' as neither the prime minister nor the deputy prime minister can say such things (about the project)," he said, flagrantly brandishing the term "sontaku" at a gathering held in Kitakyushu in support of the LDP-backed candidate contesting in Fukuoka's gubernatorial election on Sunday (April 7).
This is just one of many municipalities across Japan whose residents will cast their ballots in so-called "unified local elections" either on Sunday or on April 21, and media reports predict stiff competition for the LDP-backed candidates in Osaka and Fukuoka.
An Upper House election is also due in July.
Mr Tsukada has since retracted his remarks and apologised for causing "big trouble". He told Parliament on Wednesday (April 3): "I forgot myself and said something that was not true. That led to distorting of trust in the administrative branch."
Mr Abe had earlier stood by Mr Tsukada - who belongs to the LDP faction led by Mr Aso, who is also Deputy Prime Minister - and said he did not have to resign, calling on him to "sincerely express the truth".
But Mr Tsukada's resignation - though he said he will remain as Member of Parliament - came as pressure grew both within the LDP and among the opposition.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times: "This is a hard one to dodge because it implicates the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister directly. It is reminiscent of recent scandals where the administrative due process was distorted."
He was referring to two scandals involving educators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen. The former was over a sweetheart land deal in Osaka, while the latter was over allegedly preferential treatment for the institution to open a veterinary school.
Describing Mr Tsukada's behaviour as "sycophantic", he said: "The substance of what Tsukada said points to a real distortion of national-local relations in Japanese politics, in how provinces are left dependent on the national government and how ruling politicians can make use of this dependency to lobby for votes."
Newspapers across the political spectrum were united in chastising Mr Tsukada.
The liberal Asahi Shimbun called his speech a "complete disgrace", while the left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun added: "The joking around with the word 'sontaku' probably could be considered proof that there is no shared sense of seriousness within the administration about these issues."
The conservative Sankei Shimbun, meanwhile, said: "Withdrawing remarks that impugn the integrity of an administration does not make the problem go away.
" Mr Abe is better off without any minister who treats the concept of fairness thoughtlessly."