Japanese official kills himself

The Cabinet member was to face questioning about fraud allegations.

Published May 29, 2007

TOKYO - A scandal-tainted Cabinet member who headed Japan's powerful agriculture ministry hanged himself just hours before he faced questioning Monday over alleged bookkeeping fraud.

The death of Toshikatsu Matsuoka dealt another blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ailing government at a critical time before the leader's first big test at the polls in July.

An autopsy on Matsuoka, 62, showed he had hanged himself, according to the Associated Press, which cited a Tokyo Metropolitan Police official it did not name. Matsuoka was found unconscious in his apartment shortly after noon on Monday and declared dead hours later.

Local media reports said Matsuoka hanged himself in his pajamas with a rope resembling a dog leash and had left multiple suicide notes, including ones addressed to Abe and the public, apologizing for his actions.

Police refused to confirm details.

Matsuoka was criticized over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday for questioning.

He allegedly claimed more than $236, 000 in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office where utility costs are free.

Matsuoka also faced separate scandals related to bid-rigging and political contributions, triggering calls for his resignation even from within his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Abe had defended Matsuoka, however, saying the minister's funds were properly handled and his dismissal was not needed.

"The effects on the Cabinet will be great, " Abe said before heading to Matsuoka's wake Monday. "I feel deeply conscious of my responsibility as prime minister, and as the one who appointed him."

Matsuoka oversaw a powerful ministry in charge of some of the country's most controversial policies, including its whaling program, strict restrictions on U.S. beef imports over mad cow fears, and strong stance on lowering agricultural tariffs at trade negotiations.

While other Japanese lawmakers have committed suicide in recent years, Matsuoka was the first Cabinet minister since World War II to kill himself while in office.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world.