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Editorial: Insincere finance minister clings to job after document tampering scandal

The tampering and destruction of documents on the heavily discounted sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen and the repeated false testimonies relating to the sale that deceived the Diet for over a year constitute an unprecedented scandal. The matter cannot be solved simply by punishing Finance Ministry officials. It is only natural that Finance Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, must step down to take responsibility.

The Ministry of Finance on June 4 released the results of an internal investigation into the discounted sale, and found that Nobuhisa Sagawa, former director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, in effect ordered the alteration of documents relating to the sale as well as the destruction of negotiation records.

What led to such instructions? The ministry's report on its probe stated that the main reason was to cut down the amount of material subject to questions in the Diet. We can assume that the heart of the issue was to hide the involvement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie in the land deal.

It all began when Abe said in the Diet on Feb. 17 last year, "If it turned out that either I or my wife were involved, there is no mistaking that I would resign both as prime minister and as a Diet member."

According to the ministry report, after Abe made this statement, the general affairs section head at the ministry's Financial Bureau asked departments including the Kinki Local Finance Bureau whether there were any documents containing Akie Abe's name. Later, after receiving a report on the status of a political source's inquiry, Sagawa ordered the alteration and destruction of documents.

Akie Abe's name appeared not only in sale records that were subsequently tampered with, but in sale negotiation records. In many instances her name appeared in statements made by Moritomo Gakuen representatives. It remains a fact that she temporarily held the position of honorary principal of a school that the educational institution had planned to establish, and she herself was committed to Moritomo Gakuen.

There were no records showing that Akie Abe was directly involved in discounting the price of the state land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, by roughly 800 million yen. However, negotiation records showing that a government official assigned to her had made inquiries about preferential treatment in a loan agreement, were discarded.

The alteration and disposal of official records, the public's shared assets, are acts shaking the foundations of democracy. Sagawa and others involved in this bear a heavy responsibility.

During the past 5 1/2 years under the Abe administration, the foundations of the Ministry of Finance have conspicuously sunk. As the administration has focused on stimulation of the economy through monetary easing and fiscal action, the Ministry of Finance, which has placed emphasis on financial rehabilitation, has gotten on the wrong side of the prime minister's office. It is by no means inconceivable that an excessive sense of organizational defense -- stemming from fear of further criticism from the prime minister's office -- may have been put to work.

Turning back to the scandal, the alteration and discarding of documents occurred under Finance Minister Aso. But instead of pressing Sagawa over his unnatural statement that all negotiation records had been discarded, Aso promoted him to head the National Tax Agency, stressing that he was the right person for the job.

Aso also poured oil on the fire of criticism engulfing the ministry by stating that the document tampering was "not anything malicious like falsification," and repeating that "there is no such thing as a sexual harassment charge" after a former top bureaucrat of the ministry was accused of sexually harassing a reporter, defending his subordinate.

Aso has stated he has no intention of stepping down, but as the figure overseeing the Ministry of Finance, it would be strange for him not to take responsibility over the latest scandal.

From long ago, it has been said that "politics is the highest form of ethics." When looking at the actual state of affairs, it is obvious not all politicians are clean, but if the administration at the time does not set an example for the public, then governance of the nation will start to waver. The phrase is a warning that politicians must not forget this public position.

If such a large scandal occurs without any politicians taking responsibility, it will lead to the corruption of political ethics. By continuing to remain in his position, Aso is being insincere to the public, and is merely spurring political distrust.

Forming the background to this scandal, in which an elite bureaucrat at the ministry resorted to tampering with public documents, is the current structure of the administration with politicians wielding power over bureaucrats through the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which decides on the placement of officials at government ministries and agencies, led by the prime minister's office.

Article 66 of the Constitution of Japan states, "The Cabinet, in the exercise of executive power, shall be collectively responsible to the Diet." Abe has stated, "I keenly feel responsible as head of the executive branch." If this is the case, then he should not merely lay blame on bureaucrats, but clarify the Cabinet's political responsibility.

Again, the prime minister has said that he will "draw out all pus," but is not making Aso resign. The rate of support for his Cabinet has largely stopped declining, and yet the "many and weak" opposition parties lack the power to pursue the administration. The administration probably assumes that keeping Aso on will not inflict any fatal wounds.

Another apparent factor is that Abe is looking ahead to the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election in September, and he needs Aso's support to secure a third term. But this would mean that the prime minister's political calculations are taking priority over the handling of this scandal.

We still have not heard the full story over the Moritomo issue. If it is not addressed then a dangerous situation of damaged democracy will continue. We call on the administration to take political responsibility.

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