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Japan PM, finance minister under fire over suspected cover-up of cronyism

12 March 2018

A complex scandal involving a land sale to a well-connected businessman that was able to purchase government land at well below market prices, rocked the Abe administration on charges of a major admission, the finance ministry said it had altered related documents it submitted to parliament as part of the probe.

"I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration", Abe told reporters after the finance ministry reported on the altered documents.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Monday did not directly respond to a question by reporters about Akie Abe but said Aso should investigate the facts.

"What is important is to make everything clear", he said.

Opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano said key questions remained.

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The government has previously denied claims that the first lady gave the school operator an envelope containing 1m yen (£6,775) on behalf of the prime minister during a visit she made to the existing kindergarten.

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.

Abe said he wants Aso and ministry officials to do all they can to report the results of their investigation early this week.

The records include a comment from Yasunori Kagoike, the former head of Moritomo Gakuen, citing Akie Abe as telling him: "This is good land so please proceed".

A finance ministry official said that 14 items had been altered in the documents after February past year - when the scandal broke - at the instruction of the ministry's financial division to match testimony in parliament. A few days earlier, a finance ministry official involved in the land sale was found dead from an apparent suicide.

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"At the very least, it seems that Aso's chances of surviving as finance minister are diminishing rapidly", wrote Tobias Harris, vice president of consultancy Teneo Intelligence, in an email.

Amid the unfolding controversy over the dubious state asset transaction, National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was formerly in charge of overseeing the state land sale, stepped down on Friday for causing confusion in Diet debate. He said there was no "smoking gun" showing direct intervention by Abe or his wife.

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

But they were essentially the same as documents made available to lawmakers a year ago, and the ministry refused to clarify whether the papers had been altered as reported by The Asahi Shimbun. Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry "shakes the foundation of Japan's democracy".

A poll released Monday showed Abe's support had dropped to 48 percent, down six points from last month.

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Japan PM, finance minister under fire over suspected cover-up of cronyism