TOKYO: A Japanese official at the heart of a cronyism and cover-up scandal that has dented Shinzo Abe’s popularity said on Tuesday the prime minister’s office was not involved in falsifying documents.
In hotly awaited parliamentary testimony broadcast live on national television, Nobuhisa Sagawa said only his office took part in altering key documents relating to a controversial land sale, potentially easing the pressure on the embattled Abe.
“This is an issue only for the finance bureau [of the ministry]… therefore we never reported outside the finance bureau … not to mention reporting to the prime minister’s office,” said Sagawa, 60.
He added that neither Abe nor his cabinet secretary or finance minister had ordered the alterations.
Sagawa’s testimony came as fresh polls showed public support for Abe’s government plunging by double digits, apparently due to the scandal, amid opposition calls for the prime minister to resign.
However, Sagawa declined to answer detailed questioning about how and when documents were altered, saying he was under criminal investigation.
This sparked furious scenes in the normally restrained Japanese parliament, as opposition lawmakers jeered and dismissed the testimony as a waste of time.
“There is no point in us asking more questions,” shouted Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Akira Koike.
Tetsuro Fukuyama, the secretary general of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, told reporters: “These were totally hollow answers, and we must say suspicion only increased.”
Political analyst Yoshinobu Yamamoto stressed that Abe was not out of the woods yet.
“My gut feeling is that the problem won’t go away with this. I expect further developments ahead …. The public will not think this is the end of this problem,” Yamamoto told Agence France-Presse.
“His government is in a dire situation but it is not yet bad enough to push him to resign,” he added.
However, financial investors cheered the fact there was no damaging revelation for Abe and stocks closed up 2.65 percent.
The scandal revolves around the 2016 cut-price sale of state-owned land to a nationalist school operator who claims ties to Abe and his wife Akie.
The row deepened when the finance ministry admitted official records of the sale were altered, with references to Abe, his wife, and Finance Minister Taro Aso scrubbed.
Abe has apologized repeatedly, but denies any wrongdoing and has pledged a thorough investigation.
“I am deeply sorry if this has undermined public trust in civil servants across the nation,” Sagawa said, bowing deeply before MPs.
Sagawa also backed Abe’s assertion that neither he nor his wife were involved in the sale.
Sagawa was head of the finance ministry department that oversaw the sale in 2016, and was promoted to head Japan’s tax agency the following year.
He stepped down when the scandal hit national headlines and the opposition has repeatedly sought to bring him before parliament to testify.
Several times last year, Sagawa told MPs the price of the land “was properly calculated” and stressed there was no evidence of political pressure in the sale.
Official documents relating to the sale were apparently later altered to make them consistent with his testimony, according to the finance minister.
The opposition says Sagawa’s testimony “is only a first step towards revealing the whole truth” about the scandal and is pushing for Akie Abe to testify—a request the premier’s ruling party has so far rejected.
The affair took a tragic turn earlier in the month when a finance ministry official involved in the scandal took his own life.
Abe’s popularity has been hammered by the scandal and called into question whether he can still win a party leadership contest this September and become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.