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Finance Ministry official hints Abe's Diet testimony played part in document alterations

Mitsuru Ota, head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, is seen during a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on March 16, 2018. (Mainichi)

A high-ranking Finance Ministry official has hinted that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials' Diet testimonies played a part in the ministry's alterations to documents on the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had connections to Abe's wife Akie.

Mitsuru Ota, head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, told a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on March 16, "Although the then Financial Bureau chief (Nobuhisa Sagawa) was primarily answering questions in the Diet, the prime minister and the minister (Taro Aso) also answered questions. Our ministry was conscious about the statements made by the government as a whole."

Ota's remarks, which came in response to a question by Japanese Communist Party legislator Kotaro Tatsumi, marked a progression from the Finance Ministry's previous explanation that the documents were altered to match Sagawa's testimony in the legislature.

On Feb. 17 last year, Prime Minister Abe stated during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session, "Neither I nor my wife had anything to do with the approval (of the establishment of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen was planning to open) or the land sale. If we were ever involved, I would quit both as prime minister and as a legislator."

Tatsumi pointed out that descriptions about Akie Abe were deleted from the Finance Ministry documents pertaining to the Moritomo land sale during the period from late February last year onward, after the heavy discounts came to light.

"Weren't those parts removed to make the document content consistent (with the prime minister's testimony)?" he asked.

Ota said in response, "I assume they changed the documents out of concern for the possible development of discussions over the issue." His comment suggests that ministry officials were worried about potential grilling by opposition parties in the legislature.

Sagawa had repeatedly told the Diet last year that the Moritomo land transaction had been "properly dealt with in compliance with laws and regulations."

Ota told the upper house budget panel, "As far as we know from our interviews with (ministry employees), Mr. Sagawa was aware of (the document alterations)."

With regard to the reason why the names of Akie Abe and several other politicians were cited in the original documents, Ota said, "The Kinki Local Finance Bureau was offering commentary on the situation, including political relations, thinking that such information could be of some help when the Finance Ministry responded to Diet questions." During a lower house Financial Affairs Committee session, Ota said, "I suspect the degree of Mr. Sagawa's involvement was high."

Sagawa recently resigned as National Tax Agency chief. During an upper house plenary session, Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Aso commented, "His ability as an administrative official cannot be denied completely. I believe he performed his duties properly using his abundant experience in national tax affairs."

Opposition parties, which returned to Diet deliberations after refusing to attend recent meetings in protest of the government's handling of the document fixing scandal, criticized the administration.

"It has become clearer that the document tampering was aimed at removing text connected to Mrs. Akie Abe," Tatsumi said. Shinji Morimoto of the Democratic Party remarked, "I don't think the document alterations could have been made easily at the discretion of one single bureaucrat. I suspect that there was pressure from those close to the prime minister and Mr. Aso."

At a board meeting of the upper house budget panel on March 16, the Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party once again demanded that Sagawa be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness. The ruling coalition, meanwhile, suggested that it was going to wait and see how the situation unfolded during the panel's intensive deliberations to be held on March 19, with Prime Minister Abe in attendance.

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