Japan PM takes blame for loss of trust over scandal

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an upper house parliamentary session in Tokyo on March 19, 2018. Reuters

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his popularity plunging amid a cronyism scandal, took responsibility yesterday for a loss of trust in his government but denied he or his wife had intervened in a land sale to a school operator with ties to his wife.

The finance ministry’s announcement last week that documents about the discounted sale to educational body Moritomo Gakuen had been altered have sparked a political crisis for Mr Abe, as suspicions swirl about a cover-up and opposition parties call for both the premier and Finance Minister Taro Aso to resign.

Interrogated by a parliamentary panel yesterday, Mr Abe denied directing changes to the documents, in which references to Mr Abe, his wife and Mr Aso were removed from the finance ministry’s records of the land sale. He told the panel he had not even known of the documents’ existence.

“I did not direct that the documents be altered,” he said.

“In fact, I didn’t even know that they existed at all, so how could I have done that?”

Two opinion polls published over the weekend showed Mr Abe’s support diving to its lowest since he took office in December 2012, and others showed a majority of Japanese believed he bore some responsibility for the scandal.

In an apparent nod to those polls, several of which showed his support sinking into the 30-percent level, Mr Abe acknowledged that public trust had been shaken.

“As head of the government, I keenly feel my responsibility in the matter of the people losing their trust in the administration,” he added.

“Ultimately, the responsibility lies with me as prime minister. I would like to apologise once again.”

Opposition lawmakers said answers to their questions were unlikely to come from the premier or Mr Aso and renewed their call for Nobuhisa Sagawa, who had headed the division that submitted the documents before he became tax agency chief in July, to testify in parliament. Sagawa resigned 10 days ago.

A majority of people in the opinion polls backed the calls for Sagawa to testify, as well as Mr Abe’s wife, Akie. But Mr Abe said yesterday that he would answer any questions on her behalf.

The scandal could dash Mr Abe’s hopes of winning a third three-year term as head of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a September leadership election.

LDP lawmaker Seichiro Murakami, a long-time Abe critic, called for Mr Abe to resign last week.

Mr Abe has fallen behind his main rival in a survey of who voters would like to see as premier.

According to a Nippon TV poll, 24 percent thought former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba was “most appropriate”.

Mr Ishiba was followed by 21.2 percent for Shinjiro Koizumi, the telegenic son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Mr Abe drew 14 percent while the biggest percentage – 25 percent – said they didn’t know.

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