TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe knew of alterations made to documents linked to a questionable land sale six days before his government admitted as much to the public, fueling opposition claims that he tried to cover up a widening political scandal.
Abe was told March 6 that Finance Ministry documents related to the sale of steeply discounted public land may have been altered, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday. The land in question was sold in 2016 to Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist private school operator with ties to Abe and his wife. Media reports emerged the previous week that the documents were altered to erase evidence of the school's political connections to the prime minister.
Japan's land ministry on March 5 informed Suga's deputy, Kazuhiro Sugita, of discrepancies between documents held there and those the Finance Ministry had submitted to Diet lawmakers. Sugita ordered the Finance Ministry to work with the land ministry to investigate, and the deputy notified the prime minister the following day.
This means the government waited six days after Abe was informed to admit the rewriting. The opposition seized on this time lag and accused Abe of a systemic cover-up.
But notifying the Diet on March 5 would have been "irresponsible," a senior government official has retorted, as "we did not have the originals at that time."
"We obtained the [unaltered] documents on March 10 through cooperation with prosecutors," Suga said. "The Finance Ministry has explained that it could not fully authenticate the documents until that time."
The Finance Ministry told Abe and his inner circle Sunday that it had altered 14 documents, and the ministry made the unaltered versions available to lawmakers Monday. These showed that key details had been removed, including all references to Akie Abe and specifics regarding price negotiation between the ministry and Moritomo Gakuen.
Though the ministry sent fresh copies of the documents to the Diet's upper house budget committee March 8, these turned out to be the same altered versions submitted previously, drawing outrage from the opposition.
"The prime minister's office was engaged in a cover-up," Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the center-right Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, has alleged.
"They kept this from the people for days," Kazuo Shii, who leads the Japanese Communist Party, told reporters Thursday, claiming "they were hiding it."
Meanwhile, news media reported Thursday that a worker at the Finance Ministry's Kinki bureau found dead last week wrote in a suicide note that he was "forced to rewrite" the documents by superiors. The man had been ill since last fall and repeatedly missed work, according the reports. The Kinki bureau handled the sale to Moritomo Gakuen, and the ministry has blamed the alterations on employees there.
Nobuhisa Sagawa, who resigned as Japan's tax chief March 9, will be called to testify before lawmakers. He led the ministry's Financial Bureau at the time the alterations were made. The key question is whether ministry bureaucrats made the changes on their own, or whether Abe's office was involved as well.
"Even what we know now is ample reason for Finance Minister Taro Aso to resign," Kohei Otsuka, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, told reporters Thursday. "At the latest, he should step down after the fiscal 2018 budget is approved."
Aso has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation.
Some lawmakers want testimony from the prime minister's wife as well.
"I would like to propose Akie [Abe] be called to give testimony after Sagawa," said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief for the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party.
Akie Abe also has drawn criticism for liking a Facebook post critical of the opposition. "It was inappropriate," said Toshio Ogawa, the Democratic Party's chief in the upper house, adding that she should be called in to explain herself.
Even the prime minister's own Liberal Democratic Party demands an investigation of the document scandal.
"It is our responsibility to answer the questions that people have: Why was it done, and was it of the perpetrator's own volition?" said Shigeru Ishiba, a veteran lawmaker often at odds with Abe.
"The people are taking a hard look at the Diet and the Finance Ministry," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, said Thursday.
"The public views this less as a case of rewrites than as a case of document tampering," said Ichiro Aisawa, the LDP's former Diet affairs chief. "Politicians will eventually have to take political responsibility."