Japanese PM and finance minister under pressure over land sale scandal

14 March, 2018, 06:40 | Author: Terri Saunders
  • Pressure mounts on Japan’s Shinzo Abe amid details of cronyism

"It is inconceivable that the bureaucrats on the spot had such authority (to alter the documents)", media quoted Shigeru Ishiba, an LDP lawmaker who has made no secret of his desire to challenge Abe in the party race, as saying on the weekend.

The Osaka prosecutors had noticed that there were different versions of the same documents, as they had received the documents several times from the Finance Ministry, sources said.

Japan's prime minister is struggling to contain the political fallout from a deepening scandal involving a sweetheart land deal. "I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration", Abe told reporters after the finance ministry reported on the altered documents.

The altered documents have fuelled suspicions of a cover-up, which could be more damaging to Abe and his finance minister, Taro Aso, than the original land sale itself, Reuters reports.

Abe has consistently denied any wrongdoing and vowed to resign if he was found to be involved in the land deal. "Please go ahead." The land had been slated for construction of a new school in Osaka, Japan's third-largest city.

Abe appeared to have ridden out the storm but the scandal has hit the headlines again, with the finance ministry expected to admit some key passages in the land sale documents were removed before being presented to MPs.

A finance ministry official said 14 items had been altered in the documents after February, when the scandal broke, at the instruction of the ministry's finance division to match testimony in Parliament.

Questions over the sale of state-owned land at a huge discount to a school operator with ties to Abe's wife, Akie, have dogged Abe since the matter became public previous year. Cabinet ministers said the latest revelation will hurt public trust in the government but refrained from saying whether Aso should be held responsible.

Japanese opposition parties, meanwhile, called for further probes into the scandal and demanded Akie and Nobuhisa Sagawa, former National Tax Agency head who resigned last week due to links to the scandal, to testify in parliament.

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A Finance Ministry employee involved with the sale was found dead in a suspected suicide last week.

Opposition MPs have long questioned Shinzo Abe's denials of involvement in the land sale. However, House of Representatives member Masato Imai, a member of Kibo no To (Party of Hope), asked, "Why can you say this with certainty [while you say other issues are still being investigated]?"

That could spell trouble for the prime minister's "Abenomics" reform program that has helped revived the world's third-largest economy. "We have to take it not only as an administrative issue, but as one that affects all politics".

He said 14 changes had been made to the documents but said he did not believe the alterations were meant to protect Abe and his wife.

"If we don't make clear who did this, trust in the LDP will waver".

Polls have shown Abe's popularity declining as media reports suggested that document tampering had taken place.

According to an opinion survey conducted from March 9 to 12 by public broadcaster NHK, support rate for the prime minister's cabinet dropped to 44 percent, down 2 percentage points from a month earlier, while the disapproval rate stood at 38 percent, up 4 points. As the key economic negotiator with the USA, he's overseeing Japan's efforts to get exclusions from steel and aluminum tariffs as President Donald Trump bemoans the U's trade deficit with its ally.

Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief Japan economist at Credit Suisse Group, said he's concerned that public confidence in Abe's government will fall so much that it gives up on its plan to push through an unpopular increase in the sales tax in 2019.

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