Cronyism Allegations Chip Away at Support for Japan’s Abe

TOKYO—Public support for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plunged, opinion polls showed, as resurgent cronyism allegations threaten his fortunes ahead of a party leadership election.

Since early 2017, Mr. Abe has been dogged by accusations from opposition lawmakers of helping a school operator secure a cut-price land deal. They also claim he pushed through government approval for another educational facility operated by a longtime friend.

Mr. Abe denied the allegations, and by late last year they appeared to be fading. Mr. Abe’s ruling coalition won decisively in national elections in October.

Shinzo Stumbles
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings fell sharply despite his denials of involvement in a coverup of documents in a land deal.

Source: Asahi Shimbun

School of Hard Knocks

An alleged coverup over the discounted sale of land is denting support for Japan’s leader.

June 2016

Japanese government sells land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen at a deeply discounted price. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife was an honorary principal of the school.

February 2017

Mr. Abe denies involvement, says he would resign if he were shown to have any connection to the land deal. Pictured: Construction site for the Moritomo Gakuen elementary school in Toyonaka, Osaka.

Mr. Abe denies involvement, says he would resign if he were shown to have any connection to the land deal. Pictured: Construction site for the Moritomo Gakuen elementary school in Toyonaka, Osaka.Photo: Kyodo/Reuters

November 2017

Japan’s government approves opening of a university veterinary school run by a friend of Mr. Abe, ending a long run of rejections of new schools because of oversupply. Mr. Abe denies involvement.

March 12, 2018

Finance Ministry says documents relating to the Moritomo land deal were doctored when disclosed to Parliament to remove some references to Mr. Abe’s wife and other politicians.

March 19, 2018

Polls show a sharp decline in support for Mr. Abe in light of document scandal. Mr. Abe denies knowledge of the changes and pledges a full investigation. Pictured: Mr. Abe attends an upper house parliamentary session on Monday.

Polls show a sharp decline in support for Mr. Abe in light of document scandal. Mr. Abe denies knowledge of the changes and pledges a full investigation. Pictured: Mr. Abe attends an upper house parliamentary session on Monday.Photo: Issei Kato/Reuters

Sources: staff and news reports

This month, controversy flared again when the Finance Ministry confirmed a local newspaper report that the names of senior political figures, including the prime minister and his wife, had been secretly removed from documents about the land sale.

In parliament on Monday, Mr. Abe denied any connection to the document revisions. The original documents show Mr. Abe and others supported the Osaka-based school, Moritomo Gakuen, but don’t provide evidence that any of them intervened in the 2016 sale. Mrs. Abe was an honorary principal.

“There’s no way I could’ve ordered the changes because I didn’t know the documents existed,” Mr. Abe said. Finance Minister Taro Aso has said bureaucrats made the changes without his knowledge. A ministry investigation has started.

The head of Moritomo Gakuen, Yasunori Kagoike, said in parliamentary testimony last year that he sought Mrs. Abe’s assistance with the land deal. She denied helping.

Even though there is no smoking gun implicating Mr. Abe, the document revision has reinforced public suspicions about influence-peddling and favoritism, said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a political-risk consultancy based in New York.

Public-opinion polls conducted by three news organizations over the weekend each showed support for Mr. Abe’s cabinet falling by around 10 percentage points, to below 40%. One poll by the Asahi Shimbun showed support at 31%, the lowest in the newspaper’s polling since Mr. Abe became prime minister for the second time in 2012.

The polls also showed that at least two-thirds of the public felt Mr. Abe has some responsibility for the document revisions. A fourth poll by Nippon TV found that almost two-thirds of the public thought Finance Ministry officials altered the documents because of political pressure or to reflect what they assumed the Abe administration wanted.

Mr. Abe said he took the poll figures very seriously and, as head of government, felt responsibility for the document controversy.

Political analysts generally expect Mr. Abe will be able to retain power, but say the controversy may reduce his chances of re-election as head of the Liberal Democratic Party in an election due this September. The party chief traditionally becomes prime minister.

The episode may also weaken Mr. Abe’s ability to push through major policy proposals, including his desire to make the first-ever changes to Japan’s constitution, a move that faces considerable public opposition.

If Mr. Abe were to resign or lose the party election, Japan’s ties with the U.S. could be affected. Mr. Abe has sought to build a close personal relationship with President Donald Trump to keep the allies aligned on issues such as policy toward North Korea and its nuclear program.

Questions over the document revisions are likely to continue for weeks. Opposition parties have called for the former head of a ministry department in charge of state property deals to testify in parliament. The official, Nobuhisa Sagawa, resigned from his position as National Tax Agency chief after the document alterations were confirmed by the ministry. He has declined to comment on the doctoring of the documents.

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com

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