Japan: Abe's future in doubt as wife linked to cronyism scandal

Prosecutors have evidence of document tampering

Japan's finance minister admitted on March 12 that official documents related to a favoritism scandal dogging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been altered, but denied any plans to step down over the row.

Aso suggested that the document tampering was limited to a handful of bureaucrats.

A day after the Finance Ministry said it found 14 altered documents, Aso reiterated his intention to stay on. "But it's regrettable if the trust for the whole ministry is lost".

The prime minister apologized shortly after the disclosures became public. The foundation ran a kindergarten in Osaka known for espousing elements of the prewar nationalist curriculum, as well as for its explicit backing of Abe, and had planned to use the land for an elementary school.

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

He said there was no "smoking gun" showing direct intervention by Abe or his wife. "Please go ahead." The land had been slated for construction of a new school in Osaka, Japan's third-largest city.

The scandal first emerged early a year ago, but resurfaced after the revelation that official documents related to the sale had been altered.

The Finance Ministry admitted Monday that 14 of the original documents were altered at the instruction of some officials in the ministry before they were submitted to parliament for scrutiny previous year.

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

Abe said he expects Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso to fulfill his responsibilities.

The document falsification once again shed light on a scandal that has haunted the administration and eroded public support since a year ago.

A Finance Ministry employee involved with the sale was found dead in a suspected suicide last week.

Some LDP members said the saga could undermine the party.

In comments to the Nikkei newspaper, Shinjiro Koizumi, a rising star within the party and a son of Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister, said blaming bureaucrats was the equivalent of "cutting off a lizard's tail". "We have to make them do so", a protester said. "We have to take it not only as an administrative issue, but as one that affects all politics".

The ministry has conceded its involvement in the adjustment of 14 papers, including the removal of names of Abe, his wife and Finance Minister Taro Aso. However, the details of the actual situation are still unclear, such as who instructed that the documents be altered, and there is no sign of the situation stabilizing.

A survey this weekend showed the approval rating for Abe's cabinet has fallen by 6% to 48% in the past month; the first time it has fallen below 50% since the snap election in October a year ago.

His family has urged authorities to get to the bottom of the scandal.

"The government is built on the trust of the Japanese people", Seko said.

"The cover-up is now a bigger issue than the original incident", said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University. He added that because the opposition had been so divided, it had not been potent enough to challenge Abe.

If Aso leaves the Cabinet, the government will inevitably be destabilized. His most cherished long-term goal - to try to change the pacifist clause in the country's constitution - is now probably compromised.

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.

"I am not thinking about that at all", he said, adding he did not believe the alterations were meant to protect Abe and his wife.

"But I think there's enough here now that as you approach the preparation for the LDP elections in September, there is going to be a sense in the party of 'You know what, enough of the drama and more than a whiff of scandal".

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