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Gov't may reluctantly use 'Sagawa card,' summon key ex-official in Moritomo scandal to Diet

Nobuhisa Sagawa speaks to reporters at the Finance Ministry on March 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

The government and ruling coalition have changed course with preparations to accept opposition party demands to summon a key figure to the Diet over a scandal involving the heavily discounted sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Diet Affairs Committee Chairperson Hiroshi Moriyama told reporters on March 14 that former National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa could be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness to testify on the land sale to the school operator.

"If the need arises, we'd like to discuss it. We're not refusing," he said. The comment follows the Finance Ministry's recent admission that altered documents on the settlement of the sale were submitted to the Diet. The heads of both chambers of the Diet are set to compile a rare written protest over the document tampering, criticizing the Ministry of Finance for making a mockery of the legislative branch of government.

Sagawa previously served as chief of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau. Opposition parties began calling for him to be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness after the credibility of his statements relating to the Moritomo land sale were brought into question.

One LDP member eager to see the scandal come to an end commented, "I feel sorry for Sagawa, but the only option is to have him take all (of the blame)."

The government is looking to see the matter settled with bureaucrats taking responsibility. One official had commented that the government would eventually have to comply with demands to summon Sagawa, whom the government labeled as the figure ultimately responsible for the document alterations. However, if the ruling parties easily comply with opposition parties' demands to summon him, they could be battered relentlessly with additional calls for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie to be summoned and questions being raised over the responsibility of Prime Minister Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso over the land deal. The prime minister's office therefore has been reluctant to quickly summon Sagawa to the Diet. Yet because regular Diet proceedings have stalled and the ruling parties have been unable to withstand public criticism, it seems they have had no option but to pull out their "Sagawa card" and allow him to be summoned as a sworn witness.

Those close to Finance Minister Aso have a wary eye on what could happen after that. One senior member of the Aso faction commented, "If the prime minister sacks Aso, the administration won't be able to hold on. It's Aso who has been propping up the administration." Another aide to Aso commented that if the finance minister resigned, Abe would be next, and surmised that Aso is keen to protect Abe even if the former were chastised over the document doctoring scandal.

Still, it is unlikely that the ruling parties can overcome their current troubles by allowing the summoning of Sagawa alone. One mid-ranking member of the LDP who is not close to Abe commented that if politicians returned to their hometowns over the weekend and saw the atmosphere there, the environment within the party next week would be even worse.

Another legislator close to Abe said, "Of course he doesn't want to cut Aso, but it's not the case that he is unable to do so. That will be the very final card."

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