Asia

Japan PM Abe denies involvement in school scandal cover-up

Shinzo Abe Image copyright EPA
Image caption The scandal has been dogging the prime minister for more than a year

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has denied he played any role in the alleged cover-up of a land sale at the centre of a growing scandal.

The controversy relates to the sale of government land at below market price to a controversial nationalist group.

The group is alleged to have used its links to Mr Abe's wife to secure the discount. References to the Abes were later removed from documents.

The scandal and cronyism accusations have led to calls for Mr Abe to resign.

Finance ministry officials last week admitted to removing references to Mr Abe, his wife and Finance Minister Taro Aso in some documents relating to the sale.

But speaking in parliament on Monday, the embattled prime minister told lawmakers: "I did not direct that the documents be altered.

"In fact, I didn't even know that they existed at all, so how could I have done that?"

What is Mr Abe accused of?

At the heart of the scandal is Moritomo Gakuen, a controversial organisation known for its ultra-conservative, nationalistic principles. Its founder was a known supporter of Mr Abe.

The organisation wanted to set up a school in Osaka, and bought a plot of land from the transport ministry in 2016. The prime minister's wife, Akie Abe, was listed as the school's honorary principal.

It later emerged that Moritomo Gakuen had paid about a sixth of the market price.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Calls for Mr Abe to resign have been mounting

Allegations emerged that Mrs Abe had lobbied the government, on behalf of the school, to give a discount.

All parties denied this, and Mr Abe offered to resign if any proof emerged of a connection between him and the deal.

Mrs Abe resigned as honorary principal.

The school principal and his wife were arrested last July on suspicion of fraudulently receiving subsidies and remain in jail.

Why did the scandal resurface?

Earlier this month, it emerged that references to Mr Abe, his wife and Mr Aso had been removed from documents relating to the sale before they were made public.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Akie Abe, who has resigned as honorary principal, denies any wrongdoing

The documents indicated Mrs Abe had said the deal should go ahead. This has sparked allegations of a high-level cover-up.

Mr Aso has blamed junior staffers for changing the documents, and promised to find out what happened.

He has said the responsibility rests with Nobuhisa Sagawa, who had headed up the department which oversaw the land deal. He has already resigned.

Another ministry official was found dead in a suspected suicide, with media reports that he had confessed to being involved in amending the documents.

What does Mr Abe say?

Mr Abe has insisted he did not order any changes to the documents and that it "is clear there is no evidence that I or my wife were involved in the sale of the national land or approval of the school".

But he did acknowledge on Monday that public trust in his administration had been shaken.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Shinzo Abe's approval ratings have been hit by the scandal

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

The prime minister's approval ratings have dropped below 40% according to polls conducted by Japanese media over the weekend.

Opposition MPs have called for the entire cabinet to resign.

There have been nightly protests around Mr Abe's office over the past week demanding his resignation.

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