TOKYO • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Parliament on Wednesday (March 14) that original Finance Ministry records over a dubious land sale in Osaka would clear him and his wife Akie of any involvement in the deal.
"I would like to make it clear that neither I nor my wife, nor even my office, had anything to do with the land transaction," he said.
He added that "a look at the documents in their pre-altered form" would show this was the case, and that he had "never ordered any alterations to be made to the documents".
The scandal is now threatening to bring down Mr Abe's close ally, Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is also Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Aso is under fire after it emerged that Finance Ministry documents had been doctored before they were released to the public.
Mass protests calling for government accountability continued for a third day on Wednesday outside the Prime Minister's Office.
At the heart of the scandal, which first erupted in February last year, is a 8,770 sq m plot of land in Osaka that was sold to ultra right-wing nationalist educator Moritomo Gakuen for only 134 million yen (S$1.64 million) - one-seventh of the appraised value of 956 million yen. A new elementary school was to be built on the site, with Mrs Abe as its honorary principal.
The issue has returned to haunt Mr Abe after the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported earlier this month of alterations made to the documents on the land sale before they were submitted to Parliament, or the Diet.
It led to the abrupt resignation last Friday of tax chief Nobuhisa Sagawa, who had presided over the Finance Ministry's Finance Bureau that oversaw the deal. The same day, news broke that a bureau official had killed himself, with media reports on Tuesday saying that he had been forced to make the changes.
A total of 14 documents had portions that were scrubbed. In one omission, former Moritomo director Yasunori Kagoike - who had taken Mrs Abe on a tour of the premises and briefed her about the plan - was quoted as saying he had been told by her: "It's good land. Please proceed."
On this point, Mr Abe said on Wednesday: "I checked with my wife and she says that she had said no such thing. My wife was neither the person in charge of establishing the school, nor was she Kagoike's boss, and so naturally she would not have made such remarks."
Mr Abe told parliament that he was "deeply sorry" for a scandal that has shaken public trust, and that he "feels responsible" as the head of the administration.
He also expressed confidence in the beleaguered Mr Aso who told reporters on Monday (March 12) that responsibility for the alterations should lie with Mr Sagawa and his Finance Bureau colleagues. But many have continued to question whether Mr Aso, as minister of finance, should accept ultimate responsibility for the lapses in his ministry.
There have been voices of dissent even within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including from former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and popular political princeling Shinjiro Koizumi. They said that bureaucrats should not be made the scapegoats.
Mr Koizumi said: "The LDP is not a political party that merely shifts responsibility to bureaucrats, and we will need to prove this."
On Wednesday, the LDP acceded to calls by the opposition for Mr Sagawa to testify in Parliament in exchange for an end to their boycott of the ongoing hearings which has stymied discussions on policy matters, including the Budget for the next fiscal year.
Even so, the ruling party has remained staunchly against summoning Mrs Abe to testify, saying that she is "not related in any way to the alterations of the documents".