Published: Tue, March 13, 2018
Global | By Enrique Rogers

Japanese Prime Minister Caught Up In Land Sale Scandal

Japanese Prime Minister Caught Up In Land Sale Scandal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has apologized for the Finance Ministry's tampering with government documents.

The government's admission Monday that documents linked to a controversial land sale had been altered in a possible cover-up added fuel to a scandal that has long dogged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, threatening his once-unassailable standing in the ruling party. "We will get to the bottom of this, and I would like Mr. Aso to take the lead", he said, brushing aside demands for Aso's exit.

Streets were filled with people chanting "No more lies" and "Don't falsify documents" after Aso admitted earlier in the day that his ministry had altered documents over a deal reached in 2016 for the hugely discounted sale of state land to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator with ties to Abe's wife Akie.

An investigation by the ministry showed that the school operator told officials that Akie Abe encouraged him to proceed with the land deal, and several conservative lawmakers had contacted the ministry about the school plan, but it was not clear whether they violated any law. Key passages regarding Abe and his wife, Akie, were deleted in an apparent attempt to underplay the school's political connections to the two.

The issue previous year sharply eroded Abe's popularity.

Media have said the alterations were made after February past year - when the suspected scandal broke - and that words describing the "special nature" of the deal were excised along with the names of several politicians and that of Akie.

Sagawa headed the ministry division that submitted the documents before he was tapped as tax agency chief in July, an appointment that critics saw as a reward for his efforts to diffuse the issue with his statements to parliament past year. On March 9, National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa stepped down to take responsibility for the controversy.

One key official linked to the scandal was found dead last week in a suspected suicide. Sagawa also acknowledged destroying documents.

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Opposition politicians have called for Aso to resign.

Abe said Aso will not step down.

When asked whether he may skip the G20 on March 19-20, Aso told reporters on Tuesday the decision will depend on the "present parliamentary situation". Yasunori Kagoike, then head of Moritomo Gakuen, purchased the land to build an elementary school where Abe's wife briefly served as honorary principal.

The school had other powerful supporters: Tomomi Inada, the former defence minister, sent a letter thanking the kindergarten for raising the morale of Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF); its children are dispatched to the docks to wave off SDF warships. In addition to the name removals, the use of the word "exceptional" to describe the land deal was also removed.

The allegations have also paralysed parliament in recent days, with some opposition lawmakers boycotting debates.

But even some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have said that blaming bureaucrats is not feasible.

Abe spoke to reporters on Monday upon leaving the Prime Minister's Office. Outside parliament Monday, dozens of protesters demanded the Cabinet's resignation.

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