updated 7/31/2007 11:38:48 PM ET 2007-08-01T03:38:48

Japan’s scandal-embroiled agriculture minister stepped down Wednesday, taking responsibility for a shattering election defeat for the ruling party.

Norihiko Akagi’s resignation came amid calls for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to step down following Sunday’s defeat, one of the Liberal Democratic Party’s worst in its almost five-decade rule over Japan.

In Japan’s hierarchical and conformist culture, it is considered fitting that leaders take responsibility for such failures by resigning. Prime ministers in the past have voluntarily stepped down after similar electoral defeats.

“There is no doubt about the cause of the ruling party’s election loss. I feel very sorry, and I have decided to step down,” Akagi said on nationally televised news.

Akagi had been hit by an embarrassing accounting scandal, which was widely viewed as a major reason behind the ruling election loss.

The Democrats won a landslide, emerging as the top party in the 242-seat upper house of parliament for the first time ever.

Criticism had been growing against Abe’s administration, but Abe himself has refused to take responsibility. Public support for Abe’s Cabinet had tumbled to an all-time low since he took office in September.

Akagi is suspected of reporting $730,000 in office expenses over the past decade for a political office that was registered at his parents’ address and was defunct.

Akagi took office in June, replacing his predecessor, who committed suicide following money and bribery scandals. Akagi had denied any wrongdoing.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told reporters Akagi had tendered his resignation, and that it was accepted.

Sunday’s upset was fueled by voters angry about money scandals, ministers’ gaffes — including those perceived as insulting to women, the elderly and atomic bombing victims — and a fiasco centered around the loss by the government of 50 million people’s pension records.

The Democratic Party, the top opposition group, became the No. 1 party in the upper house for the first time ever, although the Liberal Democrats still control the majority in the more powerful lower house, where seats were not up for grabs.

Although calls for Abe’s resignation intensified, there is no clear way Abe can be kicked out against his will.

The world of Japanese politics has long relied on backroom deals and consensus-building to get things done quietly and quickly. And, the upper house technically doesn’t choose the prime minister, a power reserved for the lower house.

But pressures appeared to be closing in on 52-year-old Abe, who was heralded as a reformist when he took office last year with promises of making Japan more assertive on the international stage.

Ichiro Ozawa, the Democrats’ leader, made clear the opposition would make Abe’s ouster a rallying cry.

“I do not believe that such action that defies common sense and rules will receive the understanding of the people,” Ozawa said at a party meeting on nationally televised news.

Minoru Morita, a politics expert who has written books about the Liberal Democrats, said Abe was making a grave error and was leading his party to an even more disastrous defeat in the next election.

In the past, the Liberal Democrats revived their popularity by showing remorse following election defeats, especially through the symbolic resignation of the prime minister, he said.

“Mr. Abe is being infantile,” Morita said in a telephone interview. “Never in the history of the Liberal Democratic Party has the prime minister refused to step down for a nationwide election defeat.”

Even if Abe is replaced, political turmoil is expected to continue.

Besides badgering Abe to quit, the opposition has vowed to push for snap elections in the lower house.

Abe reiterated his determination to hang on to his job.

“I will be sorry about matters that I need to be sorry about,” he told reporters.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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