Japanese PM and finance minister under pressure over land sale scandal

13 Mar 18

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and finance minister Taro Aso are under pressure over suspected cover-up of a cronyism scandal.

The finance ministry has admitted that officials falsified documents related to a state land sale last year.

The documents, seen by Reuters, showed that references to Abe, his wife and Aso were removed from the ministry records of the discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Abe’s wife, Akie.

The references did not appear to show that Abe or his wife intervened directly in the deal.

Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Monday: “We’ll continue the investigation to get to the bottom of why this happened - I want finance minister Aso to take responsibility for that.

“This situation has shaken public trust in the whole administration, and as its head, I feel responsibility and deeply apologise to the people.”

The prime minister told parliament last year, when the scandal broke, that he would 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 scandal first emerged last year when Asahi newspaper reported that educational foundation Moritomo Gakuen bought government land for a fraction of the price of comparable plots.

Abe is Japan’s longest serving prime minister after taking office in 2012, with the promise to reboot the economy and defence.

Aso said on Monday he would not resign over the revelation. But he told reporters: “It could shake confidence in the administration as a whole. I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration.”

He said at a separate news conference that a number of officials at his ministry division in charge of the sale had altered the documents. 

A finance official said that 14 items had been altered in the documents after February last year at the instruction of the ministry’s financial division to match parliament testimony.

After this emerged on 9 March, Nobuhisa Sagawa, the head of the National Tax Agency who had previously overseen a Finance Ministry division involved in the land sale, resigned.

Opposition Democratic Party leader Yuichiro Tamaki told reporters: “It has become clear that there was a cover-up and falsification.” He also called on Aso to resign and urged the parliament to hold hearings on the matter.

Despite the scandal last year, Abe led his party to a landslide election win in October last year.

The relationship between Abe’s wife and the educational foundation was no secret and Akie made at least three speeches at a kindergarten operated by Moritomo Gakuen. In September 2015, she was named honorary principal of the elementary school that the foundation planned to operate on the land in question, Asahi newspaper reported.

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