Japan's Leader Grilled in Parliament Over Widening Fundraising Scandal, Link to Unification Church

TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and several key Cabinet ministers were grilled by opposition lawmakers in parliament on Friday over a widening fundraising scandal and an alleged connection to the Unification Church which threaten to further drag down the government's sagging popularity.

Support ratings for Kishida's government have fallen below 30% because of public dissatisfaction over its slow response to rising prices and lagging salaries, and the scandal could weaken his grip on power within the governing Liberal Democratic Party. Still, the long-ruling party remains the voter favorite in media polls because of the fragmented and weak opposition.

Dozens of governing party lawmakers, including Cabinet members, are accused of failing to fully report money they received from fundraising. Kishida has acknowledged that authorities are investigating the scandal following a criminal complaint.

The party's largest and most powerful faction, linked to late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is suspected of failing to report more than 100 million yen ($690,000) in funds in a possible violation of campaign and election laws, according to media reports. The money is alleged to have gone into unmonitored slush funds.

Kishida has instructed party members to temporarily halt fundraising parties. "It's a first step," he said Friday. "We will thoroughly grasp the problems and the cause and will take steps to regain public trust."

Kishida also said he will step down as head of his own party faction while serving as prime minister to show his determination to tackle the problems.

Kishida was bombarded with questions from senior opposition lawmakers about the scandals during Friday's parliamentary hearing.

He separately faces allegations related to a 2019 meeting with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who visited him with top officials from the Unification Church, a South Korea-based religious group that the government is seeking to dissolve over abusive recruiting and fundraising tactics that surfaced during an investigation of Abe's assassination last year.

The investigation also led to revelations of years of cozy ties between the governing party and the Unification Church.

Kishida said he was asked to meet with Gingrich as a former foreign minister and that he did not remember the other guests. Photographs in Japanese media show him exchanging business cards with Unification Church officials.

"I don't see any problem with that," Kishida said. "If there were church-related people in the group, that does not mean I had ties with the Unification Church."

Yukio Edano, a lawmaker for the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, accused Kishida of lax oversight and of attempting to distance himself from the fundraising scandal by withdrawing from leadership of his faction.

Media reports say Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno allegedly diverted more than 10 million yen ($69,000) over the past five years from money he raised from party events to a slush fund. Matsuno was a top official in the Abe faction from 2019 to 2021 and is the first key minister implicated in the scandal by name.

Matsuno brushed off repeated questions from reporters and opposition lawmakers about the allegation, saying he cannot comment now because the case is under investigation by the authorities and his faction is reexamining its accounts.

NHK public television reported Friday that two other members of the Abe faction also allegedly received 10 million yen ($69,000) in unreported funds.