National / Politics

From ‘falsified’ to ‘rewritten,’ headlines on Moritomo scandal shine light on political leanings

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

All major Japanese newspapers ran big headlines Tuesday about the Finance Ministry’s alterations to documents related to a shady 2016 sale of state-owned land, threatening to sink public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. The way in which they described the latest developments, however, was anything but uniform.

The difference was too big to ignore. Some dailies opted to say the ministry “falsified” the documents involved in the sweetheart land sale to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, while others said it “rewrote” the papers.

Major liberal newspapers — the Asahi Shimbun, the Mainichi Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun — used the word “falsification” in their headlines. The corresponding Japanese is “kaizan,” which connotes an outright wrongdoing and has been widely used by opposition lawmakers in their denunciation of the government.

But headlines in the Nikkei business daily and the Sankei Shimbun said the documents were “rewritten” by the ministry. That is a translation of “kakikae,” a more benign term that government officials have used when referring to what the ministry did.

The Yomiuri Shimbun offered a third alternative. Its front page headline noted that the material “deleted” from the documents amounted to 15 pages of text. Nowhere in the story did the paper use the word “falsification.” The conservative daily instead relied on two verbs — “rewrite” and “delete” — to explain the Finance Ministry’s actions.

When asked if he thinks the documents were “falsified,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga issued a denial. Suga insisted on Monday that the documents were “rewritten,” as “their main text remained all but intact” after the deletions.

In a dramatic turn of events, the ministry admitted Monday to making dozens of deletions to 14 official documents regarding the land deal after they were formally finalized, though the Penal Code bans the fabrication of public records.

The deleted sections included references to Abe and his wife, Akie, further stoking suspicions that the ministry struck a heavily discounted deal on the sale with Moritomo, because of the school operator’s then close ties with the first lady.

Monday’s developments in the year-long Moritomo saga also shed a renewed spotlight on an arcane Japanese word: “sontaku.” Sontaku, which can be literally translated to mean “proactively anticipating a person’s wish before an explicit order is given,” swept its way into the public lexicon last year as questions mounted over whether Abe gave clear orders in connection with the land discount.

Asked if there is any possibility Finance Ministry officials altered the documents under the spirit of sontaku — surmising the wishes of particular politicians — Aso said Monday he doubts that was the case.