The approval rating of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has plummeted to 33 percent, a nationwide public opinion survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun on March 17 and 18 has found. Polls taken by other news organizations, such as Kyodo News, have shown a similar trend, eliciting a strong sense of crisis among the government and ruling parties.
Prime Minister Abe has thus far kept his administration afloat with its ability to spring back from temporary dips in popularity, but the scandal over a possible sweetheart land deal for nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen has dealt a direct blow to the prime minister himself. Unless he provides a convincing explanation in the Diet, his prospects of winning his way to a third term in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party presidential election this fall will grow even grimmer.
"It's a very regrettable situation. I'm taking it very seriously. In order to regain the public's confidence, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso must present the public with convincing probe results," Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Seiko Noda said, emphasizing that a clarification of the Finance Ministry's alleged doctoring of official documents relating to Moritomo Gakuen, believed to be the main reason for the sudden drop in the Abe administration's approval ratings, was crucial.
"It's obvious the issue of alterations made to official documents is affecting (the administration's approval ratings)," Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi said. "These are harsh results that the government and ruling parties must take to heart, and handle with integrity," he continued, expressing his position that there is a need for more efforts toward providing the public with a thorough explanation of what happened in the Moritomo deal.
Meanwhile, a senior official at the prime minister's office admitted, "This is highly troubling. The Finance Ministry should have shed light on everything last year and revealed why it had hidden certain facts."
While there have been no changes in the prime minister's stance of protecting Finance Minister Aso, who has been one of the pillars of the current administration since Abe returned to power for a second time in 2012, 54 percent of those who responded to the latest Mainichi Shimbun poll said that Aso should resign from his Cabinet posts.
Also among those polled, 68 percent said that the responsibility for the scandal lay with Abe -- a figure that corroborates that the issue does not only concern the Finance Ministry, but the prime minister himself.
For the time being, attention will be focused on how much of the truth will come out during intensive deliberations on the issue by the House of Councillors Budget Committee, as well as from sworn testimony that previous National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau at the time of the highly discounted land sale to Moritomo, is expected to give to the Diet.
In deliberations thus far, the Finance Ministry has said that Sagawa had known about the doctored documents. The ministry has also not denied the possibility that testimony provided by the prime minister in the Diet affected the document alterations, saying, "Our ministry took into consideration the testimony provided by the government as a whole."
It appears likely that the government will be pushed into an even tougher spot unless it offers new information on why the documents were doctored, and on whose orders.
Meanwhile, the opposition bloc is ramping up its demand to summon the prime minister's wife, Akie Abe -- who was well acquainted with Yasunori Kagoike, the former chairman of Moritomo Gakuen, and his wife, Junko, and was at one time listed as the honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo was building on the land in question -- to the Diet as a sworn witness. According to the Mainichi Shimbun's recent survey, 63 percent of those polled said that Akie should be summoned to the Diet, showing great interest among the public in what Akie has to say.
The prime minister has denied that neither he nor his wife was involved in the land deal. The head of the Party of Hope, Yuichiro Tamaki, however, said, "The slump in the Abe administration's approval ratings exemplifies the public's distrust. The public wants not just Mr. Sagawa, but Mrs. Abe to be summoned as a sworn witness to the Diet."
On a program that aired on the Fuji Television Network March 18, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama reiterated his demand that Akie Abe be summoned to testify in the Diet, saying, "Her secretary (a government staffer who served as her aide) had even contacted the Finance Ministry. Since what we have been told Mrs. Abe said contradicts what (former Moritomo Chairman) Mr. Yasunori Kagoike has said, we can erase the public's doubts by having her testify in the Diet.
Fukuyama also stated that it was necessary to summon Hidenori Sakota, Sagawa's predecessor at the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, who was at the post at the time the bureau was holding land-sale negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen. On the same television program, Akira Koike, head of the Japanese Communist Party's secretariat, argued for the summons of the government staffer who was Akie's aide during the land-sale negotiations to the Diet.