Japan's Finance Ministry Admits to Altering Documents

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized on March 12th for the discovery that alterations were made to 14 documents on the controversial sale of state-owned land to private-school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

The tampering took place sometime after the Diet took up the issue in February 2017. The prime minister suggested Finance Minister Taro Aso remain in his post and clarify exactly what happened. Opposition parties say the Abe administration bears serious responsibility for the matter, and discussions in the Diet are not possible under such circumstances.

Finance Ministry officials attended an informal meeting of the board members of the Upper House Budget Committee and the Lower House Fiscal and Financial Committee on the same day. They reported their findings on the documents. They said the alterations included the deletion of descriptions that suggested the regional finance bureau had negotiated the price.

Finance Minister Aso met reporters in the afternoon and revealed the findings. He said tampering with authorized documents is a very serious act and is extremely regrettable, and that he would like to offer his deepest apologies.

Aso added that the changes were made following instructions by the ministry's Financial Bureau. He says the changes were made by some of the officials, and Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was the bureau chief at the time, bears ultimate responsibility for the act. Asked whether he plans to resign, Aso said he is not considering it, and once again offered a deep apology.

Following the news, protestors gathered in front of the Diet building, demanding the resignation of the entire Cabinet.

Lawmakers from 6 opposition parties met with Finance Ministry officials. One of the legislators pointed out that the Finance Minister had said some of the finance bureau officials made alterations, but did not say who gave the instructions. A Finance Ministry official responded that it was the bureau's decision. The 6 opposition parties held a meeting of their secretaries-general and the chief secretary. They agreed that this is an unprecedented abnormality that will demolish the trust of, and premises for, Diet deliberations. They said Japanese democracy is facing a crisis. They agreed that the Abe administration bears serious responsibility, and the ruling bloc should come up with measures to resolve the situation. And they pointed out that they cannot attend any Diet debates under these circumstances.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke to reporters. He said the situation undermines the public's trust in the administration, and as the head of the government, he feels sincerely responsible and would like to deeply apologize to the people of Japan. He says he wants the Finance Minister to push forward with the investigation to clarify what happened and why.

The results of the Finance Ministry's investigation

An investigation into the alterations show the documents originally described the deal to sell the plot of land after a 10-year leasing contract as a "special case." But this description was deleted.

More than half of the document that gives an overview of Moritomo Gakuen was also deleted. It said former Moritomo President Yasunori Kagoike has links to the Osaka chapter of a conservative group, the Japan Conference. A memo about the Japan Conference said conservative lawmakers have established a Diet version of the group. It listed Finance Minister Taro Aso as the group's special advisor and Prime Minister Abe as the vice chairman.

The original document also said Abe's wife, Akie, visited the site in April 2014, and gave a speech, but all mention of her was deleted.

The original documents suggest the Finance Ministry and the Kinki Finance Bureau were aware of the links between politicians and Moritomo Gakuen.

But in March 2017, the ministry's chief of the Financial Bureau at the time, Nobuhisa Sagawa, was asked in the Diet if he knew that Akie Abe was the honorary principal of Moritomo Gakuen's elementary school. Sagawa said he did not. A day earlier, he also said in the Diet that there had been no involvement by politicians.

Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, told reporters the investigation is still ongoing, but he thinks the tampering was ordered by someone below the rank of bureau chief. He says the ultimate responsibility lies with the head of the bureau -- Sagawa.

Asked why Sagawa should be held responsible, Aso says the documents were altered so there would be no contradiction between what Sagawa said in the Diet and what was written.

Asked if he thinks the bureau gave special consideration to politicians or to the government, Aso says he doesn't think that was the case.

Expert View

Toyo University Professor Kazuhiro Hayakawa, an expert on administrative law, says that if there were concerns the documents could be misunderstood, an oral explanation should have been offered. He points out altering a document is tantamount to changing an established fact, and says it's a problem that shakes the foundations of democracy.

Journalist Shoko Egawa says giving a false explanation to the Diet, which is the highest institute of state power, is a challenge to democracy itself. Egawa says people may wonder how long this has been going on, and whether previous explanations given to the Diet were all true. She said public trust in the government has been eroded.

Responses from the governing coalition and opposition parties

The Secretary General of the LDP, Toshihiro Nikai, says this is a grave matter which cannot simply be taken lightly as an "error." But at this point, he says it's too early to speculate on how Finance Minister Aso should take responsibility.

Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of Komeito, says the alterations make light of the legislature and cannot be tolerated. He says Finance Minister Aso must offer a complete explanation to the people and the Diet. Yamaguchi says Aso must urgently rebuild the Finance Ministry so it can address the issue properly.

Opposition parties are crying foul. The head of the Constitutional Democratic Party, Yukio Edano, says the situation has been left unaddressed for a whole year, during which the documents were altered to match the ministry's explanations in the Diet. He says this is not just a problem with the Abe administration, but that the principles of Japan's parliamentary democracy are at stake.

The president of Hope, Yuichiro Tamaki, says this is a serious issue which could leave a stain on Japanese history. He says it's essential for Aso to step down, and they will consider presenting a motion of no-confidence in the Cabinet.

The Secretary General of the Democratic Party, Teruhiko Mashiko, says, "Abe has stated that he'll step down as Prime Minister and a member of the Diet if he or his wife are found to have been involved. After that statement, the documents were tampered with. Those involved bear a heavy political responsibility."

The head of the Communist Party's secretariat, Akira Koike, says the issue is grave enough to put Abe's premiership at risk. He says the resignation of the Cabinet en masse is becoming a possibility.

Hitoshi Asada, policy affairs chief of Nippon Ishin, criticized the investigation, saying it has revealed how the documents were altered, but not who was responsible.

Taro Yamamoto, co-president of the Liberal Party, says official documents were tampered with, which is a crime. He said the term "alteration" is too mild a description. He says all parties concerned, including Sagawa and Abe's wife, should be summoned to testify to establish the facts.

Special investigators with the Osaka District Public Prosecutors' Office are looking into the case. They are investigating whether the sale constitutes a breach of trust. They are also looking into whether officials at the Finance Ministry and the Kinki regional financial bureau inflicted damage on the government by selling the land to Moritomo Gakuen for a price below market value.

The prosecutors are also looking into how the documents were altered. They hope to determine whether the land deal involved any criminal acts, such as doctoring official documents. The prosecutors are expected to interview Sagawa on a voluntary basis.