Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization Toshimitsu Motegi admitted that his secretaries distributed incense sticks to voters in his local constituency between 2014 and 2016 at the very least, as opposition parties continued to grill him on the issue in the Diet over possible violations of the election law.
At a House of Councillors Committee on Budget session on Feb. 1, Motegi admitted the provision of incense sticks to local voters, saying 16,700 yen was spent on the items in 2016 alone. However, he denied giving any instructions to his secretaries to distribute the incense sticks. While opposition parties are poised to keep questioning him in the House of Representatives budget committee session on Feb. 2, some in the government and ruling parties have also begun to call for further clarification from Motegi over the case.
In response to a question posed by Democratic Party legislator Michihiro Ishibashi, Motegi told the upper house panel on Feb. 1, "Incense sticks have been distributed for a certain number of years," suggesting that the gift-giving has been in place since even before 2014. While he initially denied any knowledge of the giveaway, saying, "I have not received any reports on the handouts," he backed off when Ishibashi pressed him by asking, "So you didn't know?" Motegi ended up acknowledging he was aware of the matter, and said, "I didn't know about the distributions in the sense that I was not aware of the whole picture."
Motegi has adamantly denied violating the Public Offices Election Act, which prohibits politicians from making donations to voters in their home constituencies, saying that the incense sticks handed out to the local electorate did not bear his name. At an upper house budget panel session on Jan. 31, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda stopped short of indicating whether the incense giveaway constituted a violation of the election law, saying, "The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications does not possess the right to conduct substantive investigations into individual cases."
The following day, however, the ministry's Election Department head Junichi Oizumi told the upper house budget panel session that, in general terms, distribution of items by secretaries verbally citing the name of a legislator may constitute donations prohibited under the law. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the same session, "I believe Mr. Motegi will fulfill his accountability if he comes under suspicion."
Six major opposition parties and parliamentary groups are set to interview ministry officials over the issue on Feb. 2, suspecting that the ministry is trying to protect Motegi.
The governing parties are concerned about getting caught up in the wrangling, as Motegi and Noda were seen chatting pleasantly in the midst of a lower house budget committee session on Jan. 30. Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, complained during a party executive meeting on Feb. 1, saying, "Legislators were seen chatting and jeering (during Diet sessions), which is outrageous. We must maintain a sense of tension, and urge moderate steering of the Diet and government responses."
Former lower house speaker Bunmei Ibuki of the LDP also blasted Motegi and Noda during a meeting of a faction led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.