TOKYO -- The fate of Finance Minister Taro Aso is in the spotlight in the wake of the revelation that his ministry discarded records of negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen over the heavily discounted sale of state land to the school operator in an apparent bid to keep consistency with a ministry official's Diet explanation.
Opposition parties stepped up their demands for Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, to step down, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is defending Aso as the kingpin of his administration.
Amid the series of scandals rocking the Abe administration, including the favoritism allegations surrounding a new veterinary school of Kake Educational Institution headed by Abe's close friend, it is apparently becoming increasingly difficult to convince the general public by laying all responsibility with the bureaucrats concerned.
Yuichiro Tamaki, co-leader of the recently launched Democratic Party for the People, told reporters on May 23, "The government's explanations over the past year were false. It is a serious incident that will go down in history. Mr. Aso, who is at the helm of the Finance Ministry, has no choice but to resign."
As Abe aspires to secure his third term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the party presidential race scheduled for this coming September, support from his close ally Aso is indispensable for his election success. At a meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare on May 23, Abe slammed the Finance Ministry, saying that the submission of the Moritomo negotiation records "contradicts the ministry's previous statements that such records no longer existed. It is indeed regrettable." In spite of the criticism, Abe still intends to retain Aso as finance minister. At a press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "I want the Finance Ministry to conduct a thorough investigation into the issue under the direction of Mr. Aso and strive to prevent a recurrence, while taking it seriously that the public is casting a critical eye at the ministry."
An LDP legislator close to Abe commented, "The prime minister will protect Aso through to the end. Mr. Aso has probably no intention to resign, either."
Senior members of the LDP's Aso faction and another faction led by party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai met at a restaurant in Tokyo's Akasaka district on the evening of May 23 and reaffirmed that the two factions will support the Abe administration on the premise of Aso staying in office.
As Aso has come under fire for a series of controversial comments he made over sexual harassment allegations involving former Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda, some in the ruling coalition harbor concerns about the prime minister's move to keep defending Aso.
Noritoshi Ishida, policy affairs chief of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, offered a harsh view during a press conference, saying, "A Cabinet minister holds responsibility over their ministry in every way. I think Mr. Aso will consider various things after fulfilling his accountability."
The Finance Ministry is set to release shortly the results of an in-house probe into the doctoring of ministry documents pertaining to the Moritomo land deal, and Aso's fate will once again come under the spotlight when the investigation outcome is unveiled.
"There wasn't much new content in the freshly released negotiation records (over the Moritomo land deal). The focus now is how the opinion polls to be taken by media organizations will turn out," said a source close to the LDP.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry also released on May 23 the results of its investigation into the cover-up of daily logs from Ground Self-Defense Force troops dispatched to Iraq for reconstruction efforts. A government source revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun that the timing of the release of the Defense Ministry probe results and the Finance Ministry documents were deliberately coincided. "The prime minister's office and the LDP coordinated to make the release (of the Defense Ministry probe results) fall on the same day as the Finance Ministry's."
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, blasted the Abe administration's tactics during a party meeting. "It's like they are serving up a set meal stuffed with suspicious ingredients. By releasing the documents (over the Moritomo land deal and the cover-up of GSDF logs) all at once, they apparently aimed to deceive people's eyes through the mix-up."
(Japanese original by Akira Murao and Masahiro Tateno, Political News Department)