National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Pressure from above possibly behind Moritomo document alterations, former Finance Ministry official says

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Kazumasa Oguro, a former Finance Ministry official and now a professor of economics at Hosei University, says he was stunned when he heard that ministry officials had admitted to doctoring 14 public documents on the shady land deal with school operator Moritomo Gakuen, a scandal that has rocked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

“A bureau chief alone wouldn’t be able to rewrite everything. So several other people had to be involved,” said Oguro, who worked at the ministry for about 10 years from 1997. So the still unidentified officials who doctored the papers should have been well aware of the “graveness” of their act, he added.

Falsifying a public document is a crime that is punishable under the law. In addition, the Moritomo documents were kessai bunsho (settlement documents), which need to be formally approved by a number of officials when collective decisions are made at the ministry.

Oguro pointed out that kessai bunsho is usually produced when ministry officials use the power given to the head of a ministry on their behalf. So any official knows doctoring documents after finalization is an absolute taboo for government workers, he said.

“It’d be natural to assume there was something that forced them to do that,” he said, particularly since there is little motivation for bureaucrats to doctor public document on their own.

The latest development has deepened public suspicion that the ministry gave the school operator an 86 percent discount on the land because the head of Moritomo Gakuen at the time, Yasunori Kagoike, had close ties with Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife, who served as honorary principal at the elementary school that was to be built on the plot of land.

The scandal has dealt a heavy blow to the Cabinet, particularly Finance Minister Taro Aso, Abe’s longtime ally. He is technically responsible for managing the ministry’s Financial Bureau, which engaged in negotiations with Moritomo over the land sale.

On Monday, Aso ruled out the suggestion there was an institutional cover-up, emphasizing that the falsification involved a limited number of officials. Aso claimed that some officials under Nobuhisa Sagawa, a one-time head of the bureau who was until recently the National Tax Agency chief, doctored the papers and should be held responsible.

But Oguro said he believes there had to be pressure to falsify the documents from someone even more senior than Sagawa, adding that otherwise sontaku must have been at play. Sontaku is a Japanese word that describes the act of pre-emptively taking an action without direct orders in order to please someone’s boss.

Opposition lawmakers believe likewise and argue Aso should be held responsible because he appointed Sagawa. They have demanded Aso’s immediate resignation.

Political observers also point out that Abe’s government tightened its grip on senior officials through the creation the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2014.

Prior to the change, the appointments of many high-level bureaucrats were rubber-stamped in most cases based on systematic recommendations from top ministry officials.But Abe and his aides at the personnel bureau now directly screen and appoint about 600 such bureaucrats. This has led to Japan’s once powerful civil servant class becoming more obedient to lawmakers, causing them to increasingly cater to the interests of politicians, said Yoshihiro Katayama, a Waseda University professor, who once worked in the internal affairs ministry.

The new structural change apparently prompted ministry officials to delete dozens of sections from the 14 documents, including the name of Abe’s wife, Oguro of Hosei University said.

“I think it’s possible, although no one can prove it,” he added.

The deleted sections included passages that mentioned Akie Abe during talks between Kagoike, the former head of Moritomo Gakuen, and the ministry on April 28, 2014.

The first lady was quoted by Kagoike as saying “this is a good plot of land and please promote” the plan to build an elementary school there, according to an original copy of one of the doctored papers.

Abe has repeatedly denied he and his wife were involved in the Finance Ministry’s decision to sell the land for the massive discount.

But officials at the ministry who produced the documents in question might have believed Abe’s wife was behind Moritomo’s plan to buy the land.

Many opposition lawmakers believe a bold remark Abe made on Feb. 17, 2017, might have prompted the officials to delete all the sections that mentioned his wife from the papers in question.

Opposition lawmakers grilled Abe over the heavily discounted land sale during a Lower House session the same day. In response, Abe angrily denied the allegation, declaring that “I will quit my job as the prime minister and the Diet … if ever it is proven that I or my wife was involved” in the land sale.

According to the Finance Ministry, the papers were doctored between late February and April last year —weeks, possibly days, after Abe made the remark.

“They started doctoring (the papers) to hide the involvement of Akie,” claimed Kotaro Tatsumi, an Upper House member of the Japanese Communist Party, on his twitter account Monday.