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Japanese Minister Resigns in Lastest Blow to Abe

Japan's farm minister resigned on Monday over illegal dealings at a farmers' group he headed,
dealing a fresh blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just a week after he revamped his cabinet.

Abe's first cabinet was plagued by scandals and gaffes and the 52-year-old conservative leader named a new line-up last Monday to try to revive public support after the ruling coalition
suffered a defeat in a July 29 election that gave the opposition a majority in parliament's upper house.

Agriculture Minister Takehiko Endo admitted on Saturday that a farmers' aid group he headed had illegally taken 1.15 million yen ($9,900) from the state and that he had failed to disclose
this to the prime minister before his appointment.

On Monday, Endo went to the prime minister's official residence but declined to respond to reporters' queries on his way out, saying only that he would give a news conference soon.

Abe's first appointee to the farm portfolio committed suicide over a separate scandal. The second was fired over reports of discrepancies in his political funding records.

Two other ministers in Abe's first cabinet were forced to resign for gaffes or scandals.

Support for Abe, who took power a year ago pledging to revise Japan's pacifist constitution and boost its global security profile, had rebounded to around 40 percent according to some
media surveys after he named the new cabinet packed with political veterans last week.

But doubts about his leadership ability remain. Analysts said the revelations of fresh misdeeds would end the honeymoon.

"The approval rate recovered temporarily during the honeymoon after the reshuffle, but it's very likely to deteriorate again," said Toru Umemoto, chief foreign exchange strategist at Barclays Capital.

But Umemoto said Abe himself was unlikely to step down any time soon, given the lack of ruling party politicians who want to take over the post now.

"I don't think Abe will resign in the near future. He and the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party will try to survive."

Another new appointee, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Yukiko Sakamoto, has also decided to resign after admitting that a campaign office in her constituency misreported
political fund outlays, media reported.

Another junior cabinet member also apologised over the weekend for misreporting expenditures.

The main opposition Democratic Party, which rejigged its own leadership on Friday, is already gearing up for a lower house election, though none need be held until late 2009.

Endo apologised on Saturday, but had said he did not intend to resign. The farmers' group, in his constituency in northern Japan, has not returned the money to state coffers.

Opposition party leaders had called on Endo to step down and threatened to submit a non-binding censure motion in parliament's upper house, which would have been a major embarrassment for Abe's government. An extra session of parliament is expected to start around Sept. 10.

Pressure had also came from Endo's ruling camp peers.

"Frankly, it is shameful and regrettable that such problems keep emerging one after another," Akihiro Ota, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito,
told NHK on Sunday.