TOKYO — Japan’s Finance Ministry acknowledged Monday that it doctored documents in a widening scandal linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife that has rattled his government.
The altered documents relate to the 2016 sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka at one-seventh of the appraised price with the alleged involvement of first lady Akie Abe, who supported the school’s ultra-nationalistic education policy.
The scandal, which surfaced a year ago, has smouldered despite a major election victory by Abe in July as opposition lawmakers continued to scrutinize the case. It erupted again in recent weeks after a major newspaper reported that it found evidence the ministry had altered records after the scandal became public.
Finance Minister Taro Aso acknowledged that an investigation by the ministry and prosecutors has found 14 altered documents. The changes were made from February to April last year at the instruction of the Financial Bureau, the ministry department in charge of state property transactions, mostly at its regional unit in Osaka, Aso said.
U.S. First Lady Melania Trump and Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tour Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida, on February 11, 2017.
He said the documents were falsified to match explanations that an official in charge of the land deal, Nobuhisa Sagawa, provided to parliament in response to opposition lawmakers’ questions.
Sagawa later was promoted to National Tax Agency chief in what critics alleged was a reward for stonewalling the questioning. He resigned last Friday to take responsibility for his replies, and another official linked to the scandal reportedly killed himself. Sagawa also acknowledged destroying documents.
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Aso denied there was any political pressure, but declined to disclose where the instructions came from and who was responsible.
Opposition lawmakers allege political pressure was involved in the land sale, but Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. So far, there is no indication that Abe or his wife committed any criminal offence.
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. Yasunori Kagoike, then head of Moritomo Gakuen, purchased the land to build an elementary school where Abe’s wife briefly served as honorary principal. The Abes are known to have supported the school’s nationalistic philosophy of education.
A phrase calling the land deal “exceptional,” as well as the names of several other influential lawmakers who were implicated but have denied involvement, were also deleted, the ministry said.