Japanese PM, his Wife and Finance Minister Embroiled in Cronyism Scandal

Japanese PM, his Wife and Finance Minister Embroiled in Cronyism Scandal

Monday, 12 March, 2018 - 09:45
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (AP)
Asharq Al-Awsat
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to apologize to the people on Monday after he found himself in the middle of a cronyism scandal that also involves his wife, Akie, and Finance Minister, Taro Aso.

The scandal, linked to records of a sale of state-owned land to a school operator, have plagued the PM for more than a year.

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

Abe, now in his sixth year in office, has denied that he or his wife did favors for the school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, and has said he would resign if evidence was found that they had.

"It could shake confidence in the administration as a whole. I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration," Abe told reporters after the finance ministry reported on the altered documents.

"I apologize to all of the people."

Excised references seen by Reuters did not appear to show that Abe or his wife intervened directly in the deal.

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

One such reference was to Akie's visit to the school at the heart of the suspected scandal. Also removed was a reference to ties by Abe and Aso to a conservative lobby group, Nippon Kaigi.

A kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen taught a nationalist curriculum in line with views espoused by Nippon Kaigi. The operator had named Akie Abe the honorary principal of the school he was planning to build on the government plot.

Suspicion of a cover-up could slash Abe's ratings and dash his hopes for a third term as leader of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Victory in the LDP September leadership vote would put him on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier.

The doubts are also putting pressure on Aso to resign.

Abe said he wanted Aso to make every effort to clarify all the facts and ensure such acts were not repeated.

Aso told a separate news conference that several officials at his ministry's division in charge of the sale were involved in altering the documents to make them conform with testimony in parliament by the then-head of the division.

Aso said the documents were doctored to be "coherent" with a speech made in parliament by the head of the tax agency Nobuhisa Sagawa, who stepped down on Friday over the scandal.

Sagawa was head of the finance ministry department that oversaw the land deal, before being promoted last year to tax agency chief.

"It is possible that Sagawa ordered the alterations," the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said, citing government sources.

Adding to the pressure, a finance ministry official linked to the scandal was found dead on Friday, although it is not clear if the reported suicide is linked to the affair.

"It has become clear that there was a cover-up and falsification," opposition Democratic Party leader Yuichiro Tamaki told reporters. He said Aso should resign and parliament hold hearings on the matter.

The 77-year-old Aso, who doubles as deputy premier and whose backing is vital for Abe, apologized for his ministry's actions, but said that he had no intention of stepping down.

The risk for Aso and Abe, experts said, is that the suspected cover-up does more damage than the land sale itself.

Abe, 63, swept back to power in December 2012 promising to revive the economy and bolster Japan's defense. It was a rare comeback for the conservative lawmaker, who quit abruptly in 2007 after a year in office marked by scandals in his cabinet, a deadlocked parliament and ill health.

His ruling bloc won a two-thirds "super majority" in an October lower house poll, helped by opposition disarray.

A March 9-11 survey by the Yomiuri newspaper showed support for Abe's cabinet has now fallen to 48 percent, down six points from a month earlier. Non-support rose to 42 percent and 80 percent said that the matter had not been handled appropriately.

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