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Japan's Cabinet meets after agriculture minister hangs himself amid scandal

Japan's Cabinet held its first meeting Tuesday after the scandal-tainted agriculture minister hanged himself hours before facing a parliamentary inquiry over fraud allegations.

The death Monday of Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka - the first serving Cabinet member to kill himself since World War II - came amid plunging support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government over a series of scandals, and at a critical time ahead of the leader's first big electoral test at polls in July.

Ministers at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, scheduled before Matsuoka's death, discussed how to handle government and parliamentary affairs without him.

Chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the meeting began with a silent prayer. Abe then asked the ministers to continue with their duties.

"It is deeply regrettable that minister Matsuoka passed away," he said. "But I ask again to each of you to cooperate in working as one in running the government."

An autopsy on Matsuoka, 62, showed he hanged himself, according to a Tokyo Metropolitan Police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy. He was found unconscious in his apartment shortly after noon on Monday and declared dead hours later.

Local media reports said Matsuoka was found in his pajamas with a rope resembling a dog leash around his neck. They said he left multiple suicide notes, including ones addressed to Abe and the public, apologizing for his actions. Police refused to confirm details.

"I apologize for having created troubles. There is no excuse for my own ignorance and lack of virtue," the Yomiuri newspaper quoted one of the notes as saying. "My wife knows all of the details well. She will confirm matters, so please do not search."

Matsuoka had faced criticism over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday afternoon for further questioning.

He allegedly claimed more than 28 million yen (US$236,000; euro176,000) 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.

Shiozaki also defended Matsuoka on Tuesday.

"He had repeatedly provided answers in Parliament," Shiozaki said. "We need to take seriously his decision to do what he did. No person is in a position to comment on what he did."

Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi will take the agriculture portfolio temporarily, the government announced Monday.

Meanwhile, a former official with a public corporation affiliated with the Agriculture Ministry who was embroiled in a bid-rigging scandal fell to his death in an apparent suicide Tuesday, news reports said.

The pajama-clad body of Shinichi Yamazaki, 76, was found early Tuesday morning in the parking lot at his condominium in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, the Yomiuri and Asahi newspapers and Kyodo News agency said, citing local police.

Yamazaki had been an executive director of a public corporation that became Japan Green Resources Agency in 2003, the reports said.

Police had raided his home on Saturday and interrogated him several times in connection with a mechanism allegedly set up by agency officials to rig bids for public works projects in 2005 and 2006, Kyodo said.

Local police refused to comment on the reports.

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