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Abe gov't cornered amid calls for Aso to take responsibility for Sagawa tax agency pick

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is seen during a news conference to announce the resignation of National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on March 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have been driven into a corner after National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa resigned over the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, as opposition forces demand Abe and close ally Finance Minister Taro Aso take responsibility for Sagawa's appointment.

"It was his wish to step down. While I understand his sense of responsibility, I don't believe he was unsuited for the job," Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, told a March 9 news conference, denying any fault for appointing the former Financial Bureau chair to head the tax agency.

Aso told reporters that Sagawa gave three reasons for his resignation: that his testimony to the Diet as bureau chief regarding the Moritomo deal -- in which he said the procedure leading up to the land sale deal was appropriate -- lacked attention to detail and brought confusion to Diet deliberations; that multiple issues had been pointed out about the management of public documents regarding the deal; and that he was the head of the bureau in charge when the document approving the sale was submitted to the Diet. This document in particular has raised suspicions after it was reported that it has been altered.

The finance minister stressed that Sagawa was the right person in the right position even when he was the Financial Bureau head. He said of Sagawa, "He's extremely competent and earnest. It's regrettable that he resigned before his job (as tax agency chief) was done," in an apparent bid to separate the issue of his resignation from the administration. At the same time, Aso announced that the ministry was cutting Sagawa's salary as a disciplinary action because Sagawa "said his action undermined the people's trust (in administrative procedures related to state property)," countering his earlier argument that the appointment was appropriate.

While Sagawa has faced strong criticism from the opposition and also the public, the predominant view even among the ruling coalition of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito is that the Moritomo scandal will not end with his resignation, especially when opposition forces are grilling the government over the documents submitted to the Diet. A mid-ranked Komeito member expressed concern, saying that opposition lawmakers would surely point out that Sagawa stepped down because he felt guilty. Meanwhile, a veteran LDP lawmaker said Aso cannot escape from facing responsibility for Sagawa's appointment.

Aso has been a rock for the Abe government for the five years since Abe came back to power in 2012. If blame over the scandal spreads to Aso, it would do immeasurable damage to the prime minister. From the time the issue surfaced, questions have been raised about whether bureaucrats surmised the intentions of Abe or his wife Akie over the nationalist school operator's land purchase. A senior LDP official said that if Aso was to step down to take responsibility over the scandal, he "would be infuriated, wondering why he was the one to get sacked." As such a scenario could quickly destabilize the balance of power within the government, lawmakers close to the prime minister are strongly denying the possibility of Aso's resignation.

Meanwhile, opposition parties are going on the offensive, saying that Abe and Aso remain liable for Sagawa's resignation. Party of Hope leader Yuichiro Tamaki slammed Aso's news conference, calling it "a mess."

"He offered no apology to the public or the Diet nor did he express regret. He spoke in a condescending tone and it showed his arrogance as well as the arrogance of the Abe government," Tamaki said. He added that the government's desire to get rid of Sagawa to draw a curtain on the issue was obvious from Aso's attitude.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Diet affairs panel head Kiyomi Tsujimoto told reporters, "Mr. Sagawa may also be a victim (in this issue). Politicians need to take responsibility." She also suggested that even though Sagawa has stepped down, the party will still demand that he be summoned to the Diet to testify. Democratic Party Secretary-General Teruhiko Mashiko said in a sarcastic tone, "Mr. Sagawa stuck to his role of protecting Prime Minister Abe, and in that sense he was the right person in the right position."

As the conflict between ruling and opposition parties over the allegedly doctored Finance Ministry documents continued on March 9, Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue suggested that the Diet could exercise its legislative branch right to investigate the matter to break the deadlock, saying that such a probe was possible "with consensus from both ruling and opposition parties."

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