National / Politics

Finance Ministry releases Moritomo documents but refuses to say if it has other versions

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The Finance Ministry on Thursday released to the Diet two internal documents related to a controversial 2016 land sale to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen, but refused to confirm if it has other versions of the records — further enraging opposition parties.

The documents, which were hundreds of pages long and had been held at the ministry’s Kinki Bureau, are identical to those previously released to lawmakers.

The Asahi Shimbun has reported that the two documents were secretly altered by ministry officials and that the latest versions leave out key information on the deal, which involved state-owned land being sold at an eye-popping 86-percent discount.

Opposition lawmakers have voiced suspicion that the ministry offered the huge discount because Moritomo Gakuen once had close ties with Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. When opposition lawmakers asked whether the ministry held copies of any other versions, ministry officials refused to answer, saying only, “our investigation is still ongoing.”

“This is outrageous. There is no progress at all — even 1 millimeter or 0.1 millimeter,” said Renho, a senior Upper House representative of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

If the allegations in the Asahi report are true the handling of the papers could be regarded as a violation of the Penal Code, which bans the falsification of public documents, and would surely deal a huge blow to Abe’s Cabinet. But if the allegations prove false, the credibility of the nation’s leading liberal newspaper would be severely damaged. The paper has not explained how it learned about the alleged revision of the documents nor has it released images of originals. In its reports the paper has said it “confirmed” the revisions, without saying it has obtained copies of the original documents. One of the two documents approved a land loan to Moritomo Gakuen in 2015, and the other approved the sale contract of the same plot of land to Moritomo in 2016. Each document has seals from several ministry officials on its first page, meaning they were officially and systematically approved.

According to the Asahi, the original land loan document stated that the contract was “of an exceptional nature” but that phrase was not present in the version later disclosed to lawmakers. The paper also states that the original sale document said the ministry “will appraise” land prices “in response to proposals from the school,” despite the ministry having denied that it conducted price negotiations. Those phrases, too, were dropped in a later version, according to the Asahi.

During a meeting with opposition lawmakers, Hiroyuki Iguchi, the head of the ministry’s government asset management division, said the ministry is cautiously investigating the case because someone “could be charged with a crime” if the allegations are true. Officials also said they have already voluntarily submitted the master copies of the two documents to prosecutors, who are investigating the alleged disposal by ministry officials of other Moritomo-related records.

The Finance Ministry separately found a paper copy and a PDF file of the documents in question at its Kinki Bureau, they said.

In response to requests from the opposition parties, the ministry printed both the paper and PDF versions of the two documents and distributed them to lawmakers and reporters on Thursday. Opposition lawmakers then found their contents to be identical to those of the versions previously released.

Six opposition parties on Thursday jointly boycotted a budget committee session at the Upper House, protesting the ministry’s refusal to say whether it has other versions of the documents. The Abe-led ruling bloc continued the day’s deliberations, while seats for opposition lawmakers remained empty.