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Finance Ministry's lack of consistency over land sale doc scandal raises more questions

Financial Bureau chief Mitsuru Ota, right, bows in apology over the land sale document scandal during a House of Representatives Financial Affairs Committee meeting, on March 16, 2018, as Finance Minister Taro Aso looks on. (Mainichi)

The Ministry of Finance struggled to provide consistent answers during Diet deliberations on March 16 on a document doctoring scandal relating to the heavily discounted sale of state property to a school operator linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife.

The ministry's explanations on details of the scandal, such as when it learned about the possibility that the documents in question had been altered and why they were doctored went back and forth, only raising more questions. The Abe government has thus found itself in deepening confusion ahead of intensive deliberations in the House of Councillors on March 19, when Prime Minister Abe will be in attendance.

Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, found himself in a tough spot when he had to correct himself right after he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on March 16 that former National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa -- who headed the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau at the time the sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen surfaced -- resigned to "take responsibility over the fact that the documents had been rewritten." Aso has been saying he had yet to confirm the document alterations on March 9 when Sagawa stepped down.

When a reporter asked Aso if he pushed for Sagawa's resignation while knowing that the documents had been doctored, Aso looked uneasy before collecting himself and said, "I was not informed (that the documents had been altered) at the time. I suspected that could be the case, but I was not sure."

It has been reported, however, that the Finance Ministry was already aware of suspicions that the documents had been modified on March 5, when it received a copy of the pre-altered version of the documents from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

The focus of the March 16 Diet deliberations was when exactly Aso learned that the documents had been doctored.

Current Financial Bureau chief Mitsuru Ota told a House of Representatives Financial Affairs Committee meeting on March 16 that he reported "everything at once" about the altered land sale documents to Aso on March 11. Aso also maintained he was not specifically informed about the March 5 report from the land ministry. However, both Prime Minister Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga were informed of the possibility that the documents had been doctored on March 6. With regard to this point, an opposition lawmaker asked Ota why he did not report the matter to Aso on March 5, but Ota stopped short of answering the question directly, and just said, "I would like to take that to heart."

While it seems unnatural for only Aso, head of the Finance Ministry, not to have been informed about the land ministry's report until March 11, this narrative fits in with the story that Aso did not know about the document alteration on March 9, the day Sagawa resigned.

Aso reiterated during the March 16 Diet meeting that the ministry had decided to cut 20 percent of Sagawa's salary for three months as a disciplinary measure, saying that the former tax agency chief "lacked attention to detail in handling the issue at the Diet and brought confusion to Diet deliberations."

Aso once more denied the possibility that Finance Ministry officials doctored the documents out of consideration for Prime Minister Abe based on Abe's Diet remarks in February 2017, when he said, "I would resign as prime minister and as a legislator if either my wife or I were involved (in the land deal)."

Ota, meanwhile, touched on the removal of Abe's wife Akie's name and the names of other politicians from the documents. He said passages in the documents "were rewritten in great detail, apparently mindful of Diet remarks (at the time) and possible comments that could be made in the Diet in the future." While Ota insisted that Abe's Diet remarks did not directly lead to the alterations, he stated, "(Officials) did care about remarks made by the government as a whole."

Upper house lawmaker Kotaro Tatsumi of the opposition Japanese Communist Party pressed Ota, saying, "You do not deny, then, that the documents were doctored to maintain consistency with the prime minister's comments, do you?"

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Correction: March 20, 2018

The below paragraph in an earlier version of this article has been deleted:

"Sagawa was the chief of the bureau in charge of the land deal when the documents were submitted to the Diet. Deputy Vice Finance Minister Koji Yano told the Diet that at Aso's direction, this fact -- extending to the possible alteration of the documents -- was taken into consideration when deciding on a disciplinary measure against Sagawa. A remaining question, however, is why Aso, who supposedly was not informed about the doctored documents before Sagawa's resignation, ordered a disciplinary measure at that time based on possible alterations to the documents."

The deletion was made because what Aso ordered was a probe into the ministry's decision to alter the documents, and the actor that proposed the reason for disciplinary measures for Sagawa was the Finance Ministry secretariat.

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