Japan’s cronyism scandal: pressure mounts on Shinzo Abe

Japanese PM’s political future in doubt after Finance Ministry admits tampering with documents

Shinzo Abe
Shinzo Abe is seeking a historic third term in office
(Image credit: Stefan Rousseau/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Japan’s prime minister is struggling to contain the political fallout from a deepening scandal involving a sweetheart land deal.

Shinzo Abe issued an apology today after the country’s Finance Ministry admitted tampering with official documents to remove references to him and First Lady Akie Abe.

The long-running scandal puts the leader’s political future in doubt as he prepares to seek an unprecedented third term in office later this year.

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What is the scandal about?

It centres on a controversial 2016 sale of state-owned land in Osaka at a steeply discounted price.

Moritomo Gakuen, an operator of ultraconservative schools, reportedly paid just ¥134m (£906,000) for the 97,000-square-foot plot - around a tenth of the price of a comparable spot nearby, The Japan Times reports.

“Government officials are suspected of slashing the price because Abe’s wife, Akie, had been appointed honorary principal of the envisioned school,” the newspaper says. She later stepped down from that role.

Opposition leaders allege that another reason for the discount was the Abe administration’s support for the school’s ultranationalist curriculum.

The deal has already prompted the resignation of the head of the National Tax Agency, Nobuhisa Sagawa, following allegations that he was responsible for the redactions.

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

In a separate scandal last year, Abe faced allegations that he helped Kotaro Kake, a friend and high-profile businessman, win approval to establish a new private veterinary school.

How has the prime minister responded?

Abe has long has denied that either he or his wife did any favours for the school operator, and has vowed to resign if evidence was found linking him to the deal.

Speaking after it emerged that documents had been falsified, the PM said: “The situation has shaken public trust in the whole administration, and as its head, I feel responsibility and deeply apologise to the people.”

He added: “We’ll continue the investigation to get to the bottom of why this happened.”

What effect will it have?

The altered documents have fuelled suspicions of a cover-up, which could be more damaging to Abe and his finance minister, Taro Aso, than the original land sale itself, Reuters reports.

The PM is coming under growing pressure to sack Aso, who also serves as his deputy - but even that might not placate opposition parties and the public.

“Even if Aso resigns to take the blame, that won’t be enough for the public,” a member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told the Kyodo news agency. “The Abe cabinet should resign en masse.”

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 last year.

In a separate poll by Sankei newspaper, 71% of respondents said Aso should go.

Analysts says it is unlikely that Abe will stand down, but the scandal is likely harm his chances of staying on as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic party - and therefore PM - after a leadership election scheduled for September.

“Right now, I don’t think there’s enough of a smoking gun to force Abe out prematurely,” Tobias Harris, vice president of advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, told The Guardian. “I think it will be very difficult to convince senior LDP officials that he deserves another three-year term.”

A bigger concern is that the scandal could kick off a period of political instability in Japan.

“Abe is now in his sixth year in office, rare longevity in a country which saw a string of revolving-door leaders before he took office,” says Reuters.

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