Explainer: The scandal that's come back to haunt Japan's PM

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thought the worst of a scandal over a cheap land sale had passed, but revelations this week suggesting an apparent cover-up could impact his popularity.

Japan's Finance Minister revealed on Monday that departmental documents relating to a controversial land sale had been altered, removing several references to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie.  

It's a major admission in a complex scandal that has damaged the reputation of the Prime Minister as he seeks re-election as head of Japan's ruling party in September.   

What was the original scandal about?

In 2016, ultra-conservative school Moritomo purchased a plot of state land for 134 million yen ($1.3 million) - about one-seventh of the value of nearby properties of similar size. 

The school's far-right operator claims to have connections to Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, who was named as an "honourary principal", prompting allegations of favouritism. 

Why has it made headlines again? 

Without evidence of a special deal, the scandal faded and Abe was re-elected with a resounding majority late last year.  

But the issue resurfaced earlier this month when a Japanese newspaper reported that documents relating to the land sale had been changed before being submitted to parliament, which was examining the issue at the time.

On Monday, Finance Minister Taro Aso was forced to confirm the report, admitting that his department had in fact altered 14 documents. 

What was changed in the documents?

Taro Aso admitted that key passages were deleted, sparking allegations of a high-level cover-up.

Among the names removed were those of Abe, his wife Akie and Minister Aso, according to opposition lawmakers. 

Another section referring to the Moritomo school's links to a Japanese far-right group was also altered to remove Abe and Aso's names. 

What have been the consequences so far?

Members of Japan's opposition are calling for the Finance Minister to step down, while others are demanding the entire Abe cabinet go. 

The latest developments have already claimed the head of the National Tax Agency, who stood down on Friday. 

His resignation followed the death of a finance ministry official involved in the land sale, who is believed to have committed suicide last week, although it's unclear if there's a direct link.  

How damaging is this for Abe? 

Abe says he has no intention of resigning and with his approval ratings the envy of many world leaders, he has good reason to be confident of riding the scandal out. 

But his support has taken a hit as a result of the issue, dropping below 50 percent for the first time since his re-election in October. 

Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of politics at Meiji University in Tokyo, said the revelation would deal a "heavy blow" to the Abe administration.

"His support rate is likely to fall, but Abe is still likely to survive the scandal by saying 'This was done by finance ministry bureaucrats'," Nishikawa told AFP. 

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is due to decide on its leader in September. Abe is currently unopposed for the position, but if a challenger puts up their hand, the ugly scandal is likely to further damage his reputation. 

- Additional reporting AFP 

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