SHINZO ABE, Japan’s prime minister, has often appeared to have more lives than a cat. Last year he survived the revelation that a regional branch of the finance ministry had sold a plot of land at an extraordinarily cheap rate to Moritomo Gakuen, an ultra-nationalistic education company run by a friend of his wife, Akie. The allegation—denied by Mr Abe—is that the land, which was intended for a school, was discounted because of the connection. But the scandal has returned to plague Mr Abe again, in a more virulent form.
On March 12th Taro Aso, the finance minister, confirmed a report from Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper, that his ministry had deliberately misled the Diet, Japan’s parliament. When the Diet was looking into the Moritomo Gakuen scandal last year, 14 of the related documents the ministry handed over as evidence turn out to have been doctored. The ministry removed Ms Abe’s name from several of them, as well as comments she had made praising the new school (Ms Abe resigned as the school’s honorary president after the scandal first broke last year). The altered documents also deleted references pointing out that Mr Abe, Mr Aso and Yasunori Kagoike, the head of Moritomo Gakuen, are all linked to Nippon Kaigi, an organisation that espouses the same sort of nationalism as the education company. (Moritomo Gakuen’s curriculum includes daily bowing to pictures of the emperor, disdain for China and South Korea, and a reinstatement of the Imperial Rescript on Education, a patriotic tract recited by all schoolchildren until Japan’s defeat in the second world war.)
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The government is blaming the finance ministry, which in turn is suggesting that responsibility lies with a few of its bureaucrats. One of them has resigned. No evidence has emerged to prove that Mr Abe or Mr Aso ordered either the cut-price sale or the dissembling to parliament. (It is not uncommon in Japan for minions to try to predict what their boss might want and to do it without being asked.) But a different newspaper is now reporting that another finance ministry official who committed suicide earlier this month left a note claiming that he had been ordered to falsify documents—an allegation the police have neither confirmed nor denied.
Mr Aso, a former prime minister, has so far refused to resign, although 71% of Japanese think he should do so, according to polls. Some within the LDP are saying the prime minister should take responsibility for the fiasco. Such calls will multiply if the government’s approval rating falls further. It is down six percentage points since last month, but remains a solid 45%. It does not help that Mr Abe himself pledged to resign last year as both prime minister and an MP if he or his wife were shown to have intervened on Moritomo Gakuen’s behalf.
The timing is especially awkward for Mr Abe, who is running for re-election as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party this autumn. His victory had previously been considered a foregone conclusion (indeed, the party changed its rules to permit him to run for a third term). Party bigwigs who had decided against challenging him may now reconsider. And if Mr Aso, the leader of a powerful faction within the party, ends up having to resign to relieve pressure on the prime minister, he might choose to side against Mr Abe in the election.
Mr Abe has suffered other defeats of late. Earlier this month the government was forced to withdraw a portion of the labour reforms it had presented to the Diet after the data underpinning them were found to be flawed. The ruckus the opposition is making over the scandal is stalling the government’s agenda.
Even if the saga does not strip Mr Abe of his cherished aim of becoming Japan’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, it might hinder his controversial plans to amend the clause of the constitution that commits Japan to pacifism. Then again, Mr Abe has that catlike quality.