Japan's Finance Ministry acknowledged Monday that it doctored documents in a widening scandal linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife that has rattled his government and caused its support ratings to slide.
Abe quickly apologized Monday on behalf of ministry officials but did not mention his wife or her suspected role in the scandal.
"People are looking critically at the developments, and I take it seriously," he said, promising to pursue a thorough investigation into what caused the problem.
The altered documents relate to the 2016 sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka at one-seventh of the appraised value with the alleged involvement of first lady Akie Abe, who supported the school's ultra-nationalistic education policy.
An investigation by the ministry showed that the school operator told officials that Akie Abe encouraged him to proceed with the land deal, and several conservative lawmakers had contacted the ministry about the school plan, but it was not clear whether they violated any law. It said one document originally noted that the school operator was involved with a powerful pro-Abe political lobby, Nippon Kaigi, of which Abe was vice chairman, but that comment had later been deleted.
The scandal, which surfaced a year ago, has smoldered despite a major election victory by Abe in July as opposition lawmakers continued to scrutinize the case. It erupted again in recent weeks after a major newspaper reported that it found evidence the ministry had altered records after the scandal broke.
Finance Minister Taro Aso said the investigation found 14 altered documents. The changes were made from February to April last year at the instruction of the Financial Bureau, the ministry department in charge of state property transactions, mostly at its regional unit in Osaka, Aso said.
He said the documents were falsified to match explanations that an official in charge of the land deal, Nobuhisa Sagawa, provided to parliament in response to opposition lawmakers' questions.
Sagawa later was promoted to National Tax Agency chief in what critics alleged was a reward for stonewalling the questioning. He resigned last Friday to take responsibility for his replies, and another official linked to the scandal reportedly killed himself. Sagawa also acknowledged destroying documents.
Aso denied there had been any political pressure, but declined to disclose where the instructions came from and who was responsible.
Abe said Aso will not step down.
In a parliamentary hearing Monday, Finance Ministry officials confirmed that a reference to Akie Abe having recommended the land deal was deleted from a document after the scandal surfaced. Yasunori Kagoike, then head of Moritomo Gakuen, purchased the land to build an elementary school where Abe's wife briefly served as honorary principal. The Abes are known to have supported the school's nationalistic philosophy of education.
A phrase calling the land deal "exceptional," as well as the names of several other influential lawmakers who were implicated but have denied involvement, were also deleted, the ministry said.
Opposition lawmakers allege political pressure was involved in the land sale, but Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Opposition leaders demanded that Abe's wife and Sagawa testify and threatened to boycott parliamentary sessions if they did not. Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry "shakes the foundation of Japan's democracy."
The conservative Yomiuri newspaper and public broadcaster NHK both reported declines in support ratings for Abe's Cabinet in polls released Monday. Outside parliament Monday, dozens of protesters demanded the Cabinet's resignation.