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Editorial: Gov't at serious fault over alteration of land sale documents

The Ministry of Finance on March 12 admitted that it tampered with a large amount of document data pertaining to the heavily discounted sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen. This is an unprecedented state of affairs that shakes the very foundations of democratic politics in Japan.

The government's alteration of official documents to suit itself and its subsequent submission of those documents to the Diet are acts that mislead the legislative branch of government, the nation's highest governing body, and thus insult the public. It deserves heavy blame for this misdeed.

An investigation by the Ministry of Finance found that 14 documents were altered between February 2017, when the Moritomo Gakuen favoritism scandal erupted, and April the same year. Finance Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, cannot evade political responsibility for allowing such a state of affairs -- and neither can Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Besides deleting a reference to the "special nature" of the Moritomo land deal from the documents, the Finance Ministry also deleted parts mentioning Abe and his wife Akie from the originals. Why did it do this? And why was Moritomo Gakuen given such a huge discount on the land deal in the first place? The issue is far from settled. In fact, much more needs to come to light.

Japan's system for managing official documents is designed to enable verification of the appropriateness of government decisions after those decisions have been made. A basic premise of the system is that documents are handled according to the rules, and that they are properly preserved. Though typographical errors might be corrected, it has never been envisaged that documents would be rewritten to hide facts.

It is possible that criminal charges will be pressed for forgery of official documents in connection with the tampering. As Finance Minister Aso said in admitting to the alteration of documents, tampering is something "that should not happen."

Aso indicated that final responsibility for the scandal lay with Nobuhisa Sagawa, the former head of the ministry's Financial Bureau that handled the Moritomo land deal. Sagawa has now resigned as chief of the National Tax Agency. Aso said bureau staffers gave the orders for the alterations to be made, and said the reason for this was so that "there would be no misunderstandings in connection with Mr. Sagawa's comments in the Diet." It is unreasonable, however, to try to limit responsibility to the Finance Ministry. This should rather be seen as a deeply rooted problem relating to the predisposition of the Abe administration.

In the past, the government initially said that the daily logs of Japanese Self-Defense Force members involved in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan had been discarded -- only for them to later turn up in digital format. And in a separate cronyism scandal involving Kake Educational Institution, when an education ministry memo reported in the media indicated that politicians were involved, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga dismissed the memo as an "anonymous objectionable document."

More recently, when under fire over sloppy data in a survey relating to the so-called discretionary labor system, the government explained that it did not have the original questionnaires, only for them to later turn up in 32 cardboard boxes in a storage room at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

The stance of turning a blind eye to documents that exist as "inconvenient truths" is evident from this series of problems.

The Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs is now deciding senior personnel placements for government ministries and agencies. As Abe continues to wield unrivaled power, it seems that bureaucrats, who should be impartial, are unable to say anything against the prime minister or the chief Cabinet secretary, as they fear it will affect their positions. And that kind of atmosphere is only intensifying. Suspicions that not only the Finance Ministry but also Prime Minister Abe himself feared being put at a disadvantage cannot be swept away.

A remaining focal point of the issue at hand is Akie Abe's involvement. The original documents included statements made by former Moritomo Gakuen Chairman Yasunori Kagoike to the Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau regarding the first lady. Presenting a photo showing himself next to Akie Abe, Kagoike was quoted as saying that the first lady had stated, "This is good land, so go ahead with the negotiations." Why was this deleted from the documents? Was it not because the government wanted to avoid having the first lady's connections with Moritomo Gakuen pursued in the Diet? This issue is no doubt connected to the heart of the suspicions.

In the Diet in February last year, Abe boldly stated, "If I or my wife were involved, I would resign as prime minister and as a Diet member." The documents are believed to have been altered after he made this remark. It is not clear what Abe meant by "involved," but the validity of statements provided in the Diet are now likely to be questioned anew.

Finance Minister Aso apologized "deeply" over the document tampering, but said he was not considering stepping down.

Abe, meanwhile, has toned down his repeated criticism of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in the Diet since it reported on the alteration of documents. On March 12, he merely stated, "I will put a full effort into turning the Ministry of Finance around."

If Aso resigned, then Abe would be pursued more intensely over his responsibility. Aso carved a path for Abe to serve another term as prime minister, and for over five years he has supported the Abe administration. Abe may therefore be thinking that if Aso quit, it could adversely affect him in the next Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.

It is impossible to try to end the matter by laying the responsibility on the shoulders of Sagawa alone. As the Finance Ministry proceeds further with its probe into the document tampering, it is necessary, in line with the original documents that have come to light, for Sagawa and Akie Abe to be summoned to the Diet as sworn witnesses.

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