( AP ) - Japan's agricultural minister died Monday after reportedly hanging himself just hours before he was to face questioning in parliament in a political scandal, officials said.
The death comes just ahead of important elections in July, and as support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet is plunging.
Toshikatsu Matsuoka, 62, was found unconscious in his apartment and rushed to a hospital, where he was declared dead hours later, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police official said.
Japanese media reported that Matsuoka had been found hanging in his apartment, along with a suicide note, and that efforts to resuscitate him at the hospital failed. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the chief government spokesman, said police were still investigating the cause of death.
Matsuoka had faced heavy criticism over a scandal involving suspicious bookkeeping practices in his offices, and was scheduled to appear before a parliamentary committee Monday afternoon for further questioning.
He was under fire for allegedly claiming more than $236,600 in utility fees even though he rented a parliamentary office where utility costs are free. Opposition lawmakers had demanded his resignation, but Matsuoka denied any wrongdoing.
Abe had defended Matsuoka, saying that the agriculture minister reported to him all the alleged issues were properly handled and that his dismissal was not needed.
Matsuoka had been dogged by scandal. Along with the utilities questions, he apologized publicly just three days after taking office for not declaring $8,500 in political donations.
He acknowledged the undeclared funds, which came in the form of purchased tickets to a fundraising party, saying he was unaware that the contributions had not been reported. Matsuoka had since corrected his political funds report for 2005.
Japan's political funds law requires politicians to declare such donations when they exceed $1,700, Kyodo News said. The contributions came from the World Business Expert Forum, a group associated with scandal-hit business consultant FAC Co., which was raided by authorities in June on suspicion of illegally collecting funds from investors, Kyodo said.
Japan's suicide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. More than 32,000 Japanese took their own lives in 2004, the bulk of them older Japanese suffering financial woes as the country struggled through a decade of economic stagnation.