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Aso's abrasive attitude to reporters over Moritomo scandal draws fire

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso responds to reporters' questions after a Cabinet meeting on March 13, 2018, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso is courting criticism for what could be seen as his arrogant attitude regarding the government land sale document doctoring scandal now rocking the Abe administration.

The Finance Ministry admitted in a report on March 12 that its staff had altered documents pertaining to the sale of state-owned property in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to nationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had connections to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie. Changes included removing references to Akie and a number of prominent ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians.

Aso has made comments in the past that aroused criticism. However, his careless statements regarding the doctoring scandal at his own ministry stand out, and have contributed to an expanding public backlash against the LDP bigwig.

At a news conference following a March 13 Cabinet meeting, a reporter pointed out that many corporate leaders had stepped down due to internal scandals even if they were not aware of them when they occurred. Aso dodged the query, asking, "Didn't the Kobe Steel (data manipulation) go on for about 20 years?" referring to the product strength data doctoring uncovered last year at Kobe Steel Ltd.

The finance minister has long tended to answer reporters' questions with bluntly worded ones of his own -- an attitude that remains unchanged in the present crisis. When Aso appeared before the press on March 12, he offered his "deep apologies" for the Moritomo land deal document alterations. However, he never bowed -- a traditional accompaniment to a sincere mea culpa. Furthermore, Aso stated that the documents had been changed to "match the Diet testimony of Sagawa," referring to former Financial Bureau and recently resigned National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa without the common courtesy of an honorific after his name.

This behavior prompted quick rebukes from opposition parties, including from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama, who pointed out that Aso had "left the honorific off Mr. Sagawa's name several times. The news conference seemed like it was designed to paint Mr. Sagawa as the villain."

According to Shin Ushijima, a crisis management expert at the Tokyo law firm Ushijima & Partners, "Managing a crisis is always a gamble. If the response is flawed, it could pour oil on the fire."

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