National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa has stepped down just when Diet deliberations have become laser-focused on allegations that Finance Ministry documents regarding a heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to scandal-hit school operator Moritomo Gakuen have been tampered with.
Sagawa, formerly head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau overseeing government assets, is inarguably one figure key to clarifying the allegations surrounding the murky land sale. Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, as well as Sagawa himself, explained that the latter resigned to take responsibility for disrupting Diet proceedings amid the flurry of suspicions over the issue.
However, the mystery surrounding the allegations is far from being solved, but rather keeps deepening. We must not allow the government to draw a curtain on the issue just with Sagawa's resignation.
Finance Minister Aso, who chose Sagawa to helm the National Tax Agency despite criticisms of the former Financial Bureau chief, as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who boasted time and again that Sagawa was "the right man in the right place," should be held responsible for the appointment.
In an appearance before the Diet last year, when opposition parties were grilling the government over the Moritomo Gakuen favoritism scandal, then Financial Bureau chief Sagawa denied that there had been any price negotiations with Moritomo prior to the land sale. He also repeatedly claimed that government records of the negotiations had been discarded.
However, audio recordings and internal documents regarding the deal subsequently surfaced one after another, raising doubts about the credibility of Sagawa's statements and prompting opposition parties to accuse him of false testimony. The opposition bloc demanded that Sagawa be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness, but the ruling camp refused, and Sagawa himself remained silent after assuming the tax agency post, holding not a single press conference.
It is only natural for Sagawa to step down after all that has happened. Although he spoke to reporters about his resignation, he will need to explain himself in the Diet as well. The ruling parties should also request he appear in the Diet as a sworn witness.
Allegations have emerged that documents pertaining to the Moritomo land sale were altered before being submitted to Diet members last year, with phrases such as the deal being "exceptional" being deleted. Meanwhile, copies of separate documents that the Mainichi Shimbun obtained through a freedom-of-information request also include phrases including "special treatment."
What does the term "special" mean here? If the massive discount granted to Moritomo was a result of "special treatment," what is the reason? Was there someone behind the move? Or did officials in charge of the land deal surmise the relationship between Prime Minister Abe's wife Akie -- who was once named as honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen was planning to open -- and the school operator? None of these questions has been answered.
The Finance Ministry remains evasive about whether there were any alterations to the documents in question, and has yet to report the results of its interviews with officials concerned to the Diet.
A member of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau department handling the Moritomo land sale was recently found dead, apparently by his own hand, while it remains unclear whether his suicide is linked to the allegations surrounding the land deal.
Finance Minister Aso pledged that a report will soon be made to the Diet over whether the alleged un-doctored documents exist. If the allegations remain unresolved, public distrust in the government will only grow. The Abe administration must put all-out effort into swiftly getting to the bottom of the suspicions.