By Kantaro Komiya and Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s economic revitalisation minister stepped down on Monday after growing criticism of his failure to fully explain his ties to a church group that critics say is akin to a cult, a move that will be a blow to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Daishiro Yamagiwa, the first person to resign from Kishida’s government since he took power last year, became the highest profile political casualty thus far from a widening scandal sparked by the July killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
His quitting is likely to further damage Kishida, whose support has tumbled to record lows amid revelations about connections between nearly half of the lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Unification Church.
Yamagiwa later told reporters he regretted his actions but stopped short of an apology and said he would remain as lawmaker since he had done nothing illegal.
“It was pointed out that my explanation was delayed. As a result, I caused inconvenience to the government,” Yamagiwa said.
He added that he regretted attending so many church gatherings and giving the organisation recognition as a result.
Kishida later told reporters he would name Yamagiwa’s successor on Tuesday.
“I accepted his resignation because, as prime minister, I need to give top priority to issues such as economic measures and supplementary budgets,” he said.
Kishida added that an economic stimulus package was in the final stages of compilation and would be announced by the end of the month, as expected.
He added he felt responsible for having appointed Yamagiwa but would continue his duties and parliamentary appearances.
But the move may not satisfy the opposition.
“They even cancelled the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy meeting abruptly – it’s total mayhem,” tweeted Kenta Izumi, who leads the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, referring to a policy meeting whose eleventh-hour cancellation preceded the announcement of Yamagiwa’s impending resignation.
Unification Church, founded in South Korea in the 1950s and famous for its mass weddings, has came under the spotlight following Abe’s July 8 assassination.
The suspect in Abe’s shooting bore a grudge against the church, alleging it bankrupted his mother, and blamed Abe for promoting it, according to his social media posts and news reports.
Since the killing, evidence has come to light of deep and longstanding ties between the church and LDP members.
The LDP has acknowledged that many individual lawmakers have ties to the church but have said there was no organisational link to the party.
Kishida last week ordered an investigation into the church.
This month, a Jiji news agency poll showed that approval for Kishida’s government had fallen below 30% for the first time, a danger level below which his government might find it hard to carry out his political agenda.
Critics say the church built ties with politicians in Japan to attract followers and gain legitimacy, while politicians gained access to church members for help with campaigns.
The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, an anti-communist and self-declared messiah.
Critics have for years accused his ministry of being a dangerous cult and questioned its finances and how it indoctrinates its followers, often derided as “Moonies”.
The church says it no longer accepts donations that cause financial hardship. It says it has been vilified and members have faced death threats since Abe’s murder.
(Additional reporting by Mariko Katsumura, writing by Elaine LiesEditing by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel, William Maclean and Alex Richardson)