TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his close ally, Finance Minister Taro Aso, are facing growing pressure over a suspected cover-up of a cronyism scandal that has dogged the Premier for more than a year.
Copies of documents seen by Reuters show that references to Mr Abe, his wife Akie and Mr Aso were removed from Finance Ministry records of a sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to Mr Abe's wife.
Mr Abe, 63, now in his sixth year in office, has denied that he or his wife did favours for the school operator, Mr Moritomo Gakuen.
Excised references seen by Reuters did not appear to show that Mr Abe or his wife intervened directly in the deal.
Suspicion of a cover-up could slash Mr Abe's poll ratings and dash his hopes for a third term as leader of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Victory in the LDP September leadership vote would put him on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier.
The doubts are also putting pressure on Mr Aso to resign.
"We'll continue the investigation to get to the bottom of why this happened - I want Finance Minister Aso to take responsibility for that," Mr Abe said yesterday. "This situation has shaken public trust in the whole administration, and as its head, I feel responsibility and deeply apologise to the people."
Mr Aso, 77, told a separate news conference yesterday that several officials at his ministry's division in charge of the sale were involved in altering the documents to make them conform with testimony in Parliament by the then-head of the division.
Opposition Party of Hope leader Yuichiro Tamaki said Mr Aso should resign and Parliament hold hearings on the matter.
Mr Aso, who doubles as Deputy Prime Minister and whose backing is vital for Mr Abe, apologised for his ministry's actions, but said he did not intend to step down.
A Finance Ministry official said that 14 items had been altered in the documents after February last year - when the scandal broke - at the instruction of the ministry's financial division to match testimony in Parliament.
One such reference was to Mrs Abe's visit to the school at the heart of the suspected scandal.
Also removed was a reference to ties by Mr Abe and Mr Aso to a conservative lobby group, Nippon Kaigi. A kindergarten run by Mr Gakuen taught a nationalist curriculum in line with views espoused by Nippon Kaigi.
"At the very least, it seems that Mr Aso's chances of surviving as finance minister are diminishing rapidly," wrote Mr Tobias Harris, vice-president of consultancy Teneo Intelligence, in an e-mail.
But he added: "It now seems to be more a question of whether Mr Abe can manage an orderly exit at the end of his term in September or whether he'll resign hastily again - but I don't see how he can win a new mandate."
Last Friday, National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa abruptly quit over his remarks in Parliament about the case. Mr Sagawa headed the ministry division that submitted the documents before he was tapped as tax agency chief in July - an appointment critics saw as a reward for his efforts to diffuse the issue with his statements to Parliament last year.
Some LDP members said politicians should not pass the buck to bureaucrats. "It is inconceivable that the bureaucrats on the spot had such authority (to alter the documents)," said LDP lawmaker Shigeru Ishiba, who has made no secret of his desire to challenge Mr Abe in the party race.
Correction note: An earlier version of the story says Yuichiro Tamaki is Democratic Party's leader. This is incorrect. He is leader of Party of Hope. It also referred to the wife of Mr Abe as Ms Akie, it should be Mrs Abe.