By Hannah Beech
October 23, 2014

Last year, while addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan declared that his homeland’s economic revival depended on harnessing an underutilized national resource: women. Although highly educated, Japanese women are among the least employed in the developed world; the World Economic Forum’s 2013 gender-gap survey rated Japan below Burkina Faso and Cambodia.

After a September Cabinet reshuffle, Abe unveiled a lineup studded with five women–unremarkable perhaps by Western standards, yet glass-ceiling-shattering by Japanese ones. But on Oct. 20, Abe’s Trade and Justice Ministers resigned after being embroiled in political-funding scandals. Both were women; only one was replaced by another woman.

Abe’s efforts to tap more women helped buoy his popularity at a time of slowing economic growth. The fates of his two highest-profile female appointees–Yuko Obuchi as Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry and Midori Matsushima as Minister of Justice–mark the first resignations by any Cabinet members since he took office in late 2012.

Cabinet tumult is the last thing Abe needs as he struggles to push through the more painful reforms of his so-called Abenomics program, like another sales-tax hike set for next year. Obuchi’s resignation is particularly troublesome for Abe, since she was charged with convincing a skeptical Japanese public that the nation should restart its nuclear power plants, which were shuttered in the wake of the 2011 tsunami.

The Cabinet pair’s alleged infractions might sound trifling, but local political-funding laws are strict. Obuchi is accused of having used funds from political coffers to bestow upon her admirers handkerchiefs and subsidized theater tickets, among other goodies. Matsushima has been faulted for distributing over 20,000 paper fans to her constituents. Both deny charges of illegality. “I apologize for failing to make any contributions as a member of the Abe Cabinet,” said Obuchi, “to reviving the economy and bringing about a society in which women shine.”

The remaining political women around Abe aren’t unsullied either. Two made news last month when photos emerged of one posing with a Japanese neo-Nazi leader and the other with members of an anti-immigrant group that has dismissed Koreans as “cockroaches.” And two days before the Oct. 20 resignations, the other three female Cabinet members made a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead, including convicted war criminals, are controversially honored. Abe, a conservative, has vowed to restore national pride after decades of post–World War II self-flagellation.

Obuchi, 40, is relatively moderate. She is the daughter of a former Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, whose 1998–2000 tenure was undistinguished. His daughter is more charismatic, if less politically experienced. Until her resignation, the mother of two was tipped as a contender to one day become Japan’s first female PM.

Still, scions of political families have a way of rebounding in Japan. Just look at Abe, the grandson of an ex-PM. In 2007 he resigned after a disastrous year as the country’s leader. Five years later he was back in office, more popular than ever. Handkerchiefs and theater tickets may not hold back Obuchi forever. But her exit, and that of Matsushima, will complicate Abe’s agenda.

RUSSIA

‘We lost a real friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth.’

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President, mourning the death of Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of French energy giant Total, after he was killed in a plane accident at a Moscow airport on Oct. 20. De Margerie, an outspoken oil executive who was friendly with political leaders around the world, including Putin, was critical of recently imposed Western sanctions against Russia.

POLL

WHAT’S THE GREATEST THREAT TO THE WORLD?

The Pew Research Center asked people in 44 countries from March 17 to June 5. Here’s a look at the top responses:

[This article consists of 5 illustrations. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

23%

Nuclear weapons

19%

Inequality

18%

Religious and ethnic hatred

14%

Pollution and environmental damage

12%

Disease

Lockdown in Ottawa

CANADA

An armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police team responds to a shooting at Parliament Hill, the site of the Canadian legislature, in Ottawa on Oct. 22. Downtown Ottawa was locked down after a gunman opened fire and fatally wounded a soldier standing guard at a war memorial before moving toward the Parliament building. Police later confirmed the death of a male suspect as the security operation continued.

EXPLAINER

Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

On Oct. 26, Tunisia will hold its first parliamentary elections since the 2011 revolution that set off Arab Spring protests against repressive regimes across the Middle East.

Disillusioned voters

Nearly four years after the revolution displaced longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the economy remains stuck in neutral and many are worried about security. The result: just 48% of Tunisians say they prefer democracy to other kinds of government, according to a recent Pew poll.

Tight race

Earlier this year, an interim government led by the Islamist party Ennahda was forced to resign following pressure from the secular opposition. Now Ennahda, led by Rached Ghannouchi, is vying to return to power in what is expected to be a close contest with the secular parties.

What’s next

The parliamentary contest will be followed by presidential elections on Nov. 23. The race will see the country’s interim leader–Moncef Marzouki, a human-rights activist who has held the post since 2011–go up against 26 candidates, including a woman, Judge Kalthoum Kannou.

AFGHANISTAN

$7.6 BILLION

What the U.S. has spent in its battle against the Afghan opium trade. Despite the campaign, opium-poppy cultivation in the country climbed to a record 516,000 acres (209,000 hectares)in 2013 and is expected to rise this year, as most foreign troops prepare to depart.

Trending In

POLITICS

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will face off against Aécio Neves in a runoff election on Oct. 26 after a sudden surge in support unexpectedly catapulted the opposition candidate into the final round of the contest.

TEACHERS

Top-performing teachers in Saudi Arabia can now look forward to cash bonuses and luxury cars like BMWs under a government initiative aimed at boosting educational standards.

WEATHER

Rising global temperatures over the summer–readings in May, June, August and September set new highs–could result in 2014 going down as the hottest year since records began 135 years ago, according to U.S. meteorologists.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.

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