Finance Ministry unit says it will probe Moritomo document-tampering allegation

JIJI, Kyodo

The Finance Ministry said Friday that it will investigate allegations in a newspaper report that it falsified a document related to the heavily discounted sale of state land to a nationalist school operator linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife.

“We’ll look into the allegations” without obstructing the prosecutors, Mitsuru Ota, director-general of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, told a meeting of the House of Councilors Budget Committee.

The ministry will report back on the matter by Tuesday, Ota said at a meeting of the House of Representatives Financial Committee.

Finance Minister Taro Aso declined to address a report published by the daily Asahi Shimbun on Friday that said his ministry altered a document about the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen after the scandal broke in February last year, saying he could not comment while prosecutors were investigating the case.

But he later told the committee that if the allegations are true, it is “a matter of grave concern.”

The dubious transaction involved state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture that was sold to Moritomo Gakuen in 2016 for around ¥134 million ($1.3 million), far less than its appraised value of ¥956 million. Moritomo Gakuen used the land to build a private elementary school, but it did not open as scheduled due to the scandal.

Abe’s wife, Akie, had been named honorary principal of the planned school, but she stepped down after the land sale was made public.

The newspaper highlighted differences between the original version of the document it obtained and the one disclosed to lawmakers after the issue was first reported in 2017.

The original document described the land transaction between the ministry and the school operator as “exceptional,” but this word was missing in the version made available to Diet members, according to the Asahi report.

A senior Finance Ministry official told a Diet committee Friday that the ministry will re-examine the document while heeding the possible impact it may have on the prosecutors’ investigation. The document was compiled by the ministry’s bureau based in Osaka.

Opposition parties demanded that the ministry release the original text.

The government is suspected of dramatically discounting the land price in light of Akie Abe’s involvement in the school project. Abe and government officials have flatly denied the allegations.

Yasunori Kagoike, who headed Moritomo Gakuen at the time of the deal, and his wife, Junko, have been indicted on unrelated subsidy fraud charges.

Osaka prosecutors are investigating the ministry’s Kinki Bureau officials on suspicion of a breach of trust and discarding land sale negotiation records that should have been retained.

Aso said at a news conference that it is “a matter of course” for the ministry to “fully cooperate with the investigation.”

In the wake of Friday’s report, the opposition Kibo no To (Party of Hope) and Democratic Party grilled ministry officials at a Diet meeting. Under questioning, the officials held to Aso’s stated position.

Kenta Izumi, Diet affairs chief of Kibo no To, told reporters, “If (the report is) true, the Cabinet must resign.”