The Moritomo scandal that has plagued Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his finance minister Taro Aso for the past year, took another twist when the Nikkei reported on Friday that Abe was made aware of alterations made to documents linked to the controversial land sale at the heart of the scandal six days before his government admitted as much to the public - and potentially much longer assuming he ordered said alterations - sparking fresh claims from the opposition he was trying to cover up the biggest political scandal of his (second) career as PM.
On Thursday, Abe's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Abe was told as early as March 6 that Finance Ministry documents related to the sale of steeply discounted public land may have been altered; it was not only Monday March 12 that the ministry made the unaltered documents available to lawmakers and the public. As a reminder, the scandal in question involves the sale of land to Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist private school operator with ties to Abe and his wife; media reports first emerged the previous week that the documents were altered to erase evidence of the school's political connections to the prime minister.
According to the Nikkei's newly disclosed timeline, Japan's land ministry informed Suga's deputy, Kazuhiro Sugita, of discrepancies between documents held there and those the Finance Ministry had submitted to Diet lawmakers on March 5. Sugita then ordered the Finance Ministry to work with the land ministry to investigate, and the deputy notified the prime minister the following day.
This means the government waited six days after Abe was informed to admit the rewriting. The discovery of this time lag prompted the opposition to accused Abe of a systemic cover-up, which it clearly is.
To be sure, the administration has defended itself, saying that notifying the Diet on March 5 would have been "irresponsible," as "we did not have the originals at that time" senior government official retorted.
"We obtained the [unaltered] documents on March 10 through cooperation with prosecutors," Suga said. "The Finance Ministry has explained that it could not fully authenticate the documents until that time."
Then the Finance Ministry told Abe and his inner circle Sunday that it had altered 14 documents, and the ministry made the unaltered versions available to lawmakers Monday. These showed that key details had been removed, including all references to the premier's wife, Akie Abe. and specifics regarding price negotiation between the ministry and Moritomo Gakuen.
The incident did not end there as even when caught, the government tried to cover up... again: when the ministry sent fresh copies of the documents to the Diet's upper house budget committee March 8, these turned out to be the same altered versions submitted previously, drawing outrage from the opposition according to the Nikkei.
"The prime minister's office was engaged in a cover-up," Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the center-right Kibo no To, or Party of Hope, has alleged. "They kept this from the people for days," Kazuo Shii, who leads the Japanese Communist Party, told reporters Thursday, claiming "they were hiding it."
In retrospect, if that's the best Japan's communists and opposition politicians can do, Abe has nothing to fear: to become effective they would need to take long lessons of outrage from US Twitter to be able to enact any change.
But wait there's more.
It turns out that in addition to cronyism and a coverup, Abe's actions may have resulted in a suicide: on Thursday Japanese media reported that a worker at the Finance Ministry's Kinki bureau found dead last week wrote in a suicide note that he was "forced to rewrite" the documents by superiors.
The man had been ill since last fall and repeatedly missed work, according the reports. The Kinki bureau handled the sale to Moritomo Gakuen, and the ministry has blamed the alterations on employees there.
Meanwhile, fireworks await: Nobuhisa Sagawa, who resigned as Japan's tax chief March 9, just days before the scandal became public, will be called to testify before lawmakers. He led the ministry's Financial Bureau at the time the alterations were made. The key question is whether ministry bureaucrats made the changes on their own, or whether Abe's office was involved as well. Of course, there is no reason on earth why anyone in the finance ministry would seek to protect Abe or his wife without some ulterior motive, although that's precisely the angle that Abe will pursue.
Until then, calls for resignations continue to rise, if remain largely unheeded: "Even what we know now is ample reason for Finance Minister Taro Aso to resign," Kohei Otsuka, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, told reporters Thursday. "At the latest, he should step down after the fiscal 2018 budget is approved."
Aso has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation.
So finding themselves at an impasse, where a career-ending scandal that would have cost the job of any of Abe's drama-allergic predecessors has so far failed to lead to even one resignation (but at least on suicide), some lawmakers want testimony from the prime minister's wife as well.
"I would like to propose Akie [Abe] be called to give testimony after Sagawa," said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief for the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party.
But wait, this cartoon continues (for those who claim that only Donald Trump can provide hours of entertainment): Mrs Abe has also drawn criticism for liking a Facebook post critical of the opposition. "It was inappropriate," said Toshio Ogawa, the Democratic Party's chief in the upper house, adding that she should be called in to explain herself.
Meanwhile, sensing that the public mood can sour quickly, and with no North Korean ICBMs to use as a convenient distraction, even the prime minister's own Liberal Democratic Party demands an investigation of the document scandal.
"It is our responsibility to answer the questions that people have: Why was it done, and was it of the perpetrator's own volition?" said Shigeru Ishiba, a veteran lawmaker often at odds with Abe.
"The people are taking a hard look at the Diet and the Finance Ministry," Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, said Thursday.
"The public views this less as a case of rewrites than as a case of document tampering," said Ichiro Aisawa, the LDP's former Diet affairs chief. "Politicians will eventually have to take political responsibility."
Maybe, but not just yet, and certainly not the man at the center of the scandal, Finance Minister Taro Aso, who on Friday said that the abovementioned Nobuhisa Sagawa - the man at the heart of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal - was not trying to act on any unspoken wishes of his superiors in his previous testimony about the scandal in parliament. In other words, Japan's former tax chief inexplicable decided to to Abe and wife this huge favor in vacuum.
Of course, if the Japanese populace is dumb enough to accept this "explanation", it deserves the civilization-crushing economic and market collapse that will follow once Abe and Kuroda's grand experiment in central planning finally ends.