The Finance Ministry admitted Monday to having altered documents over a discounted state land sale at the center of cronyism allegations against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with references to Abe's wife, who was involved in a school project at the site, being deleted, ruling party lawmakers said.
The ministry's admission made to lawmakers could increase calls for Finance Minister Taro Aso, a key Abe ally, as well as the prime minister to resign to take responsibility over the matter.
The original documents quoted Moritomo Gakuen, operator of an elementary school planned to be built at the site in Osaka, as saying Akie recommended the school project "move forward because it is a good plot of land." They also said she inspected Moritomo and gave a speech there in April 2014.
An online article attached to the original version, which said Akie was "moved to tears by the school's education policy" when she visited the nationalist school operator, was also erased in the papers later disclosed to Diet members.
Akie was initially named honorary principal of the elementary school, but gave up the post after a scandal involving the controversial state land deal came to light in February last year. Opposition parties claim the Finance Ministry drastically reduced the land price, taking into consideration Akie's role in the project.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he sees no need for Aso to resign, saying in a press conference Aso "should lead the ministry's thorough investigation to get to the bottom of" the scandal. The top spokesman pledged that the government will "deal seriously with" the issue.
Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Party of Hope, told reporters Abe himself should take responsibility over the matter, as there is now a "strong indication" that Akie was involved in the scandal.
The falsified records concern a deal reached in June 2016 to sell a state-owned plot in Osaka to the school operator, which has ties to Akie, at a heavy discount.
The scandal, which pushed down Abe's support ratings, has drawn fresh attention after a major daily reported on March 2 that the ministry's documents had been doctored to remove descriptions saying the dramatically cut land sale price was "exceptional."
Senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party members said 14 of the original documents were rewritten at the request of the ministry's headquarters after the revelation of the scandal in February 2017.
The names of several politicians, including former trade minister Takeo Hiranuma and former disaster management minister Yoshitada Konoike, were erased in the version later disclosed to Diet members.
At the request of opposition parties, the ministry last Thursday presented to the Diet what it claimed were copies of the "original documents."
But they were essentially the same as documents made available to lawmakers last year, and the ministry refused to clarify whether the papers had been altered as reported by The Asahi Shimbun.
Amid the unfolding controversy over the dubious state asset transaction, National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was formerly in charge of overseeing the state land sale, stepped down on Friday for causing confusion in Diet debate.
He was under pressure for allegedly making false parliamentary remarks while serving as director general of the ministry's Financial Bureau. The documents were believed to have been altered to make them consistent with Sagawa's responses to Diet questions on the matter.
The state-owned land in question is an 8,770-square-meter plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture that was sold to Moritomo for about 134 million yen ($1.25 million) to build a new elementary school, far below its appraised value of 956 million yen.
Prosecutors are investigating Finance Ministry officials on suspicion of selling the plot at an unreasonably cheap price and discarding negotiation records that should have been kept.
The ministry has claimed the heavily discounted sale price was calculated in light of the costs to dispose of buried waste at the site.
Yasunori Kagoike, who headed the school operator at the time of the controversial land sale, and his wife Junko have been indicted on unrelated subsidy fraud charges.