Japan finance minister Aso's leadership needed for probe into land sale: Suga

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One reference was to Ms. Akie's visit to the school at the heart of a suspected cronyism scandal, according to the documents seen by Reuters on Monday.

Aso said the documents were altered to make them conform with Sagawa's testimony in parliament.

He did not directly respond to a question about media reports that the name of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife, Akie, had been removed from documents related to the sale, which the government admitted on Monday had been altered.

Aso, who is also Abe's deputy, apologized over the issue Monday, saying that staff at the ministry ordered the adjustment of the papers.

"Changing official documents is very grave and extremely regrettable and I deeply apologize", Aso said at a press conference.

The operator had named Akie Abe the honorary principal of the school he was planning to build on the government plot.

The doubts have also sparked calls for Aso to quit, but the finance minister said on Friday that he will not step down.

Aso apologised for his ministry's actions but said he had no intention to resign.

Abe, now in his sixth year in office, has repeatedly denied he or his wife did favours for school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which bought the land, and has said he will resign if evidence is found that they had.

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The issue a year ago sharply eroded Mr. Abe's popularity. The Abes are known to have supported the school's nationalistic philosophy of education.

Moritomo Gakuen's existing kindergarten attracted attention for requiring its young pupils to bow before portraits of the imperial family, sing the national anthem daily, and learn the 1890 imperial rescript on education, which emphasises sacrifice for country.

Suspicion of a cover-up could slash Abe's ratings and dash his hopes for a third term as leader of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He said there was no "smoking gun" showing direct intervention by Abe or his wife.

Speaking to reporters in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima Prefecture, Abe said Saturday that the ministry should make utmost efforts to clarify whether the documents have been altered.

The Mainichi Shimbun has reported the documents were doctored to be "coherent" with a speech made in parliament by the head of the tax agency Nobuhisa Sagawa, who stepped down on Friday over the scandal.

Sagawa was in charge of the finance ministry department responsible for the land sale before being promoted to head the tax agency. Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry "shakes the foundation of Japan's democracy".

Abe, 63, swept back to power in December 2012 promising to revive the economy and bolster Japan's defence.

His ruling bloc won a two-thirds "super majority" in an October lower house poll, helped by opposition disarray. Non-support rose to 42 percent and 80 percent said that the matter had not been handled appropriately.

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