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Politics

Abe contrite over document tampering amid political firestorm

Japanese prime minister still backs embattled finance chief

Abe answers reporters' questions regarding the tampering with land sale documents.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government's admission on 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.

The Ministry of Finance acknowledged that 14 documents had been doctored after a steep discount offered to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka came to light in February last year. 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 central question in the scandal is whether its political connections landed the school a sweet deal, an allegation the government has consistently denied.

The unprecedented doctoring of public documents has prompted an emboldened opposition to step up calls for Finance Minister Taro Aso's resignation and dial up attacks on Abe. While the prime minister's office is hoping to wait for the storm to pass, a significant erosion of Abe's political clout could cloud his prospects for winning a third term in September's Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.

Abe said on Monday that the revelations "could rattle trust in the government as a whole" and that he felt a "keen sense of responsibility."

"I deeply apologize to the Japanese people," Abe said. "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.

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, center, speaks to reporters after his ministry admitted doctoring documents submitted to the Diet. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Aso also offered apologies, saying that "some staff at the Financial Bureau" were the perpetrators. 

Aso said responsibility for the alterations lies with Nobuhisa Sagawa -- who announced his resignation as Japan's tax chief Friday and headed the Financial Bureau when the scandal and alterations took place. He added that the documents were changed to eliminate discrepancies with the Sagawa's Diet testimony. The finance minister also ruled out stepping down.

Osaka prosecutors obtained originals of the documents from the Kinki bureau and passed copies on to Finance Ministry headquarters for use in its investigation. These were submitted to the Diet on Thursday and have now been made public. Key deleted passages include references to Akie Abe, in particular those made during a 2014 meeting between representatives of Moritomo Gakuen and the Kinki bureau. The school operator described her visiting the site and telling Moritomo Gakuen to "go ahead" with its plans, as the site was a "good" one.

A description of the nationalist political organization to which the school operator's founder belongs was also excised. This passage included the names of Aso and the prime minister.

Text saying Moritomo Gakuen and the ministry office had arrived at a deal "after negotiations on price and other matters" was deleted as well. The land was ultimately sold for 800 million yen ($7.5 million at current rates) below market value, raising questions over whether Abe's political influence had played a role. Because of the deal's "exceptional" nature, the land was initially to be leased to the school operator for 10 years before purchase, according to deleted text. But officials pledged to "get the Financial Bureau chief's permission to sell," that text said. Deleting this passage could have been meant to obscure involvement by Finance Ministry headquarters in the deal.

Another key question is the relationship between the ministry's Financial Bureau and the Kinki bureau. Aso said the changes to the documents were made as instructed by the Financial Bureau. Yet Mitsuru Ota, Sagawa's successor as Financial Bureau chief, has told lawmakers that ultimate responsibility for the documents lies with the ministry's Kinki bureau.

The Financial Bureau did not respond when asked to identify the specific statements that had necessitated the deletions. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his wife, Akie.

The revelations are particularly troublesome for Abe, who told lawmakers in February 2017 that he would resign from parliament if he or his wife were found to have been involved in the cut-rate land sale. Aso said Monday that the deletions "have nothing to do" with that pledge.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday that he believed the documents were not so much doctored or manipulated as "rewritten," as "not much of their main text has changed." It is "inconceivable" that bureaucrats had been acting in accordance with Abe's wishes, he said.

Opposition lawmakers beg to differ. The "heinous" alterations were "conducted systematically," said Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the center-right opposition party Kibo no To, or Party of Hope. "It's a problem for the cabinet as a whole," said Tamaki, who called on officials in the Abe government to resign en masse.

The Finance Ministry is considering punishing officials implicated in altering the documents as its investigation proceeds. 

Opposition lawmakers have also demanded that Akie Abe and Sagawa be called in to testify. Hiroshi Moriyama, the LDP's Diet affairs chief, rejected that possibility Monday.

But the Abe government will likely face fallout from this scandal eventually. While LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai said Monday that his support for Abe in the party's presidential race this autumn "has not shifted at all," he also called the document alterations a "severe problem."

"The word 'error' doesn't cover it," Nikai said.

The alterations "cause a loss of trust in the administration," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the LDP's junior coalition partner, Komeito. "They make light of the legislature and are utterly unacceptable."

"We don't know how large the impact could be," an LDP official said of the scandal. If public support for the government falls too far, latent dissatisfaction in the party with Abe's tight grip on Japanese politics could come to the fore, bolstering support for rivals challenging the prime minister for leadership of the LDP this fall.

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