Opposition forces suspension of Upper House committee as ministry again refuses to disclose Moritomo papers

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Opposition parties went on the offensive Tuesday and forced the suspension of key Upper House committee sessions, boycotting them in protest against the Finance Ministry’s refusal to disclose the master copies of ministry documents related to a controversial land sale deal with Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

The Asahi Shimbun has reported that two internal documents were revised by ministry officials before being disclosed to lawmakers seeking information on the sale — concluded at a huge discount — of the land plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

The Asahi report alleged that the later versions left out key information on the sale. If that is true, it would deal a huge blow to the ministry and possibly the whole of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

On Tuesday, the ministry refused to disclose the original copies, saying that doing so could affect ongoing investigations by prosecutors in Osaka, who are probing the alleged disposal by the ministry of public documents related to the 2016 land sale.

The ministry “didn’t even say whether it has the original copies or not,” said an opposition lawmaker who briefed reporters after meeting with ministry officials at the Upper House.

Officials just said “necessary materials” were held by prosecutors and that this has made it impossible for the ministry to submit the original copies, according to the lawmaker.

Earlier, the ministry had claimed that its regional Kinki bureau had the master copies of the documents.

In response, opposition parties jointly boycotted planned sessions of the budget committee and financial committee at the Upper House. Those sessions were eventually canceled.

Opposition lawmakers have pushed strongly for disclosure of the documents, partly because the Asahi Shimbun now alleges it has “confirmed” their revision. The paper has stopped short of explaining how it got the information or releasing images of the two original documents.

According to the Asahi, one of the two documents approved a land loan to Moritomo Gakuen in 2015 and another approved the sale contract of the same land plot to Moritomo in 2016.

The deal drew particular public interest because the ministry gave an 86 percent discount to the school, which once had close ties with Akie Abe, the wife of the prime minister.

According to the Asahi, the original land sale document had stated that the contract was “of an exceptional nature,” but that phrase was dropped in the version disclosed to lawmakers.

The ministry has denied it conducted any price negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, but the original document read that the ministry “will appraise” land prices “in response to proposals from the school.” Those phrases, too, were dropped in a later version, according to the Asahi.

Moritomo Gakuen hoped to build a private elementary school on the plot of land. The project also drew particular attention because Moritomo Gakuen was well-known for an ultranationalist education policy at its kindergarten in Yodogawa Ward in the city of Osaka.

Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report