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When will Japan's political musical chairs stop?

By Arata Yamamoto, NBC News Producer

TOKYO – In the latest round of musical chairs in Japanese politics, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who had been regarded as the next possible successor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, resigned from his post on Monday after revelations surfaced during last week's parliamentary session that he had accepted political donations from a foreign national.

Under Japanese election campaign law, politicians are prohibited from receiving contributions from foreign entities, including businesses and individuals in order to safeguard domestic politics from external influences.

In the case of Maehara, the contributions came from a 72-year-old South Korean woman who runs a Korean barbecue restaurant in Kyoto city.

She has known the family since Maehara and his mother moved to the same neighborhood when he was in junior high school and since then, regarded him as her son and supported his career from his days as a young aspiring politician.

According to Maehara, he was not aware of the donations until it was raised last Friday by the opposition party. After subsequent investigations by his office, he revealed that she made five separate contributions between 2005 and 2010, each amounting to 50,000 yen, or roughly $600.

The woman has told the Japanese press, had she known it was illegal for a "zainichi" (a Japanese acronym for foreigners with permanent resident status who chose not to become naturalized Japanese citizens) to make these contributions, she would have never done so.

Maehara explained his resignation: "Regardless of the amount, or the fact that I was not aware of these facts, as a politician appointed to serve as foreign minister, and the fact that I had received political contributions from a foreign national, it is something which cannot be taken lightly."

Ironically, in 2007, similar reports were revealed about former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, of the current main opposition Liberal Democratic Party. His political organization received contributions amounting to200, 000 yen ($2,400) from a pachinko owner with ethnic ties to North Korea. In Fukuda's case the issue was dropped because of a three year statute of limitation and also because his office was not aware of the contributor's ethnic background.

But perhaps more importantly, with the constant threats by the opposition which currently controls the upper house to vote down key budget bills and the repeated calls for snap elections getting louder every time a scandal hits the ruling Democratic Party, Maehara admitted: "We simply couldn't allow the issue of my political contribution to halt parliamentary sessions.”

Constant turnover
Prime Minister Kan has already lost two ministers to opposition pressure since taking office nine months ago. The Transport Minister for failing to handle the now famous incident involving a Chinese fishing boat ramming into Japanese coastguard vessels and the Justice Minister for a gaffe he made during a fundraiser.

The political scrimmages have taken a toll on the parliamentary debates which are imperative to pass key measures that are badly needed to shape the future of the country, but also it wasn't lost on Maehara, how Japan's political turmoil is increasingly being perceived overseas.

Maehara who has always insisted on the importance of long term office-holding, shared a story from the U.N. General Assembly last September, how a foreign minister from another country came up to him to say he was his sixth counterpart from Japan.

"It is truly regrettable that it has come to this and that I have personally brought on something that has hurt our national interest. But in principle, positions such as the prime minister and foreign minister must be carried out long term,” he said.

The last prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama's stint as the leader of the country only lasted for nine months after resigning over a series of faulty reporting on political contributions.  Now the incessant political disarray has local journalists and pundits guessing on a daily basis how much time Kan has left for his tenure, which only makes you wonder when this game of musical chair will finally end.