Published: Wed, March 14, 2018
Economy | By Shawn Conner

Japan's Abe, wife under fire over cover-up of cronyism

Japan's Abe, wife under fire over cover-up of cronyism

Allegations against Ms Abe, for her involvement with Moritomo Gakuen, an operator of ultraconservative schools that was able to purchase government land in Osaka at a fraction of its value, first emerged early past year, but resurfaced after the revelation that official documents related to the sale had been changed.

Abe said he would resign as prime minister and a member of Parliament if evidence emerged linking him to the land deal.

Abe is facing re-election as head of his ruling LDP party in September, which would put him on course to be Japan's longest-serving premier.

Aso also said that whether he will attend the meeting of Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors, scheduled to start next Monday in Argentina, "will depend on [my] dealings with parliament".

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.

The doubts are also putting pressure on Aso to resign.

The 77-year-old Aso, who is also 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.

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The head of Moritomo, Yasunori Kagoike, told lawmakers in March 2017 that he received a donation of 1 million yen in cash from Abe via his wife Akie, Bloomberg reported. Yukio Edano, leader of the constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry "shakes the foundation of Japan's democracy". "What about the multiple explanations in parliament - did they diverge from the truth?"

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

The bureaucracy is "very secretive, arrogant and authoritative", said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.

In a parliamentary hearing Monday, Finance Ministry officials confirmed that a reference to Akie Abe having recommended the land deal was deleted from a document after the scandal surfaced.

One such reference was to Akie's visit to the school at the heart of the suspected scandal.

A kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen taught a nationalist curriculum in line with views espoused by Nippon Kaigi.

"Abe's chances of winning a third three-year term as LDP president after his term expires in September have plummeted", said Tobias Harris, vice-president of Teneo Intelligence analysts.

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The school's far-right operator claims to have connections to Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, who was named as an "honourary principal", prompting allegations of favouritism.

Abe apologized Monday afternoon as "head of the administration" after the revelations were made public, but indicated his support for Aso by saying that he hopes Aso would lead efforts to "look into why such a thing happened" to regain public confidence.

And he dismissed suggestions that he might resign over the scandal.

Sagawa headed the ministry division that submitted the documents before he was tapped as tax agency chief in July, an appointment that critics saw as a reward for his efforts to diffuse the issue with his statements to parliament a year ago.

While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party intends to reject the demand, some LDP members are now saying they should summon him, with a mid-ranking LDP member saying, "We have no choice but to summon Sagawa to make it clear who altered the documents for what objective".

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears before journalists at his office in Tokyo on March 12, 2018. 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.

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