Japan’s government said on Monday that the names of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his wife and his finance minister were deleted from documents at the heart of a land scandal that erupted last year, a revelation that threatens to derail his administration and its economic strategy.
Finance Minister Taro Aso apologised and said an internal investigation was ongoing as opposition lawmakers called for him to resign. He admitted that staff in his department tampered with the documents, but said all the blame rests with one of his subordinates who resigned last week. Abe also sought to limit the damage.
“We’ll continue the investigation to get to the bottom of why this happened — I want Finance Minister Aso to take responsibility for that,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Monday. “This situation has shaken public trust in the whole administration, and as its head, I feel responsibility and deeply apologise to the people.”
While Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is unlikely to lose its grip on power, the scandal could hamper his bid to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He told parliament last year that he’d resign if any link emerged between himself or his wife over a property deal in which a school with connections to ultra nationalists bought public land at a heavy discount. “The question is whether this scandal will stop here,” said Hiroshi Shiraishi, a senior economist at BNP Paribas SA in Tokyo. “If not, there will be increasing questions over whether Aso can stay on,” said Shiraishi. He added that if Aso resigned, Abe would come under attack next.
The yen strengthened sharply earlier in the day amid concerns Aso would quit, casting a shadow over the fiscal and monetary stimulus programs that have weakened the currency. The yen retraced some of its moves when he stood firm. Stocks also gyrated on the political uncertainty.
While Abe last year appeared to weather the scandal — leading his party to a landslide election win in October as North Korea tensions increased — it resurfaced last week.
Nobuhisa Sagawa, the tax chief who served under Aso, stepped down Friday amid questions over his involvement in the deal. The resignation that came on the same day as it became public that an official at a regional finance ministry bureau in charge of the sale was found dead, in a suspected suicide. Aso said Sagawa
was ultimately responsible for doctoring the documents, adding that the alterations weren’t made to protect Abe or his wife. Abe has repeatedly denied any involvement on his part, or that of his wife Akie, in the sale of land to Moritomo Gakuen, an educational foundation that subsequently filed for bankruptcy. The foundation ran a kindergarten in Osaka known for espousing elements of the prewar nationalist curriculum, as well as for its explicit backing of Abe, and had planned to use the land for an elementary school.
Finance minister Aso refuses to quit
Finance Minister Taro Aso refused to step down after it was revealed that his name and that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were removed from documents connected with a land-sale scandal.
Aso, who is also Abe’s deputy, apologized over the issue Monday, saying that staff at the ministry ordered the alteration of the papers. He declined to comment on whether he would take responsibility over the scandal, adding that an investigation was still ongoing. The yen pared gains and stocks strengthened on his remarks.
The Finance Ministry conceded its involvement in the alteration of 14 papers, removing the names of multiple politicians, as well as the name of Abe’s wife. Abe and Aso’s names were taken in off in an explanatory section about the school’s ties with nationalist group Nippon Kaigi. The prime minister told parliament in February last year that he’d resign if any link emerges between himself or his wife and the land deal.