Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said yesterday he will voluntarily give up a year of his salary to take responsibility for a data-tampering scandal that has undermined public trust in the bureaucracy.
Mr Aso, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, apologised for the falsification and attempted discarding of public documents. But he said he had "no intention of stepping down", and that his leadership was critical to regain trust.
He told a news conference that in the light of an internal ministry probe, some 20 ministry officials, including former National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa, will be punished with either a fine, suspension, pay cut or warning.
The probe, he said, pinned the blame on Mr Sagawa, who was found to have wrongly ordered the tampering of at least 14 documents over a dubious sweetheart land deal in Osaka that ensnared Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie.
Mr Abe later said that he felt "keenly aware" of his responsibility as the head of government.
"There must not be any falsification of official records," he said. "The government, with Mr Aso taking the lead, will implement all possible measures to ensure that this will not happen again."
Mr Sagawa was chief of the ministry's financial bureau then. While his precise motives remain unclear, the tampering took place after Mr Abe said in February last year that he will "resign as prime minister and parliamentarian" if he or his wife were found to have been directly involvedin the scandal.
The piece of public land had been sold at only one-seventh of its appraised value to Moritomo Gakuen, a right-wing nationalist school operator, to build a school that, at one point, was to be called the Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary. Mrs Abe was to be honorary principal.
The rationale for the hefty discount has to do with costs needed to be incurred to clean up the heavily polluted land - though it has emerged that the extent of the contamination had been padded up.
The records were doctored to erase all references to the Abes, including one in which Mrs Abe was quoted as saying: "This is a good plot of land. Please proceed."
Mr Abe has maintained that he and his wife are innocent.
The scandal has cast attention on sontaku, a workplace culture in which subordinates surmise and act on the wishes of their superiors - even if it means breaking the law.
A financial bureau official killed himself over his involvement in the case. In his suicide note, he said he was "just following orders".
Meanwhile, Osaka prosecutors have said they will not press any charges against 38 Finance Ministry officials, including Mr Sagawa.
But a citizens' group, which includes an emeritus professor from the University of Tokyo, has sought an inquest over the failure to indict anyone for the Moritomo case, the Asahi Shimbun reported yesterday.