The Japanese government on Friday denied a foreign newspaper report that hinted the Economic Planning Agency manipulated gross domestic product data for the October-December quarter for political reasons.

EPA chief Taichi Sakaiya downplayed the report and said the agency’s announcement Thursday that it will likely revise downward the data was merely the result of a statistical problem and not because of political pressure.

“It was just a matter of data processing. There was no political motivation,” Sakaiya said.

The New York Times suggested Wednesday that the EPA gave in to pressure from the Liberal Democratic Party and tampered with the GDP data to soften the news before expected elections next month.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, speaking at a separate news conference, denied political pressure prompted data manipulation.

“The GDP data is compiled by the EPA in an impartial and objective manner, and it is absolutely impossible for it to be manipulated politically,” the top government spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa echoed the others, categorically denying The New York Times’ suggestion that the EPA acted under political pressure.

“I believe such a thing is impossible,” Miyazawa told a regular news conference. “I know (the EPA) well because I have served as its minister for a total of about five years. It is absolutely impossible that they (would change the data) on purpose.

“There is no room for questioning that their neutrality is guaranteed.”

Miyazawa was EPA chief three times: from 1962 to 1964; between 1966 and 1968; and from 1977 to 1978.

The EPA announced Thursday that it will probably reduce its GDP data for the October-December quarter of 1999 to around minus 1.6 percent from the previously released figure of minus 1.4 percent — the exact numbers reported by The New York Times.

“It can’t be helped because it is a matter of statistics. You can’t beat statistics,” Miyazawa said, adding that such revisions are made occasionally.

The EPA’s explanation is that its number-crunchers balked at including data showing that financial institutions cut their spending on new equipment by 38 percent and instead substituted their estimate that spending fell 3 percent while they double-checked the true figure.

The EPA’s fudging of official numbers also stoked another firestorm that the government tried putting out on Friday: The revised GDP figure makes it likely that the government will be unable to meet its meager growth target of 0.6 percent for fiscal 1999.

Asked about this, Miyazawa said, “That may be the case.”

For the government to meet the target, the economy would have had to have grown a robust 2.4 percent in the final quarter of the fiscal year.

“We are aware that there are various opinions” regarding the growth target, Aoki said. “But we hope the economy will show as much growth as possible.”

GDP is the total value of goods and services produced domestically.

The revised GDP growth rate will be released around June 10, when the EPA is to announce its preliminary data for the January-March quarter of 2000, the agency said.