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Moritomo scandal: Ruling bloc yields to opposition calls for Diet testimony by former tax agency head

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Top executives from the ruling coalition agreed Tuesday to accept a demand from opposition parties for former National Tax Agency head Nobuhisa Sagawa to give sworn testimony in the Diet over a document-tampering scandal that continues to gnaw at the popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The much-anticipated Diet appearance of Sagawa, who resigned as tax agency chief earlier this month to take responsibility for the scandal, was arranged to take place next Tuesday.

Sagawa will be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness, meaning his attendance is mandatory and that he would be held culpable for perjury should he give a false statement.

Tuesday’s decision by the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, came after weeks of thorny wrangling with the opposition, which repeatedly boycotted Diet sessions in protest against the ruling bloc’s earlier refusal to have him answer questions in the Diet.

Opposition parties have insisted that his testimony is a crucial step toward shedding further light on alterations to official documents related to the contentious 2016 sale of state-owned land. The sale involved a nationalist school operator that once had close ties with Akie Abe, the wife of the prime minister.

After his abrupt resignation on March 9, Sagawa was singled out by Finance Minister Taro Aso as “ultimately responsible” for the tampering, which Aso claimed was committed by “some staff members” at the ministry’s Finance Bureau. Sagawa was overseeing the bureau when the falsification is alleged to have occurred, and in past Diet questioning he has repeatedly vouched for the legitimacy of the land deal.

“We decided to have Sagawa speak as a sworn witness at the Diet because any further delays in Diet deliberations would have a significant impact on the public,” Hiroshi Moriyama, Diet affairs chief of the LDP, told reporters at a Tokyo hotel after meeting Yoshinori Oguchi, his Komeito counterpart, as well as secretary-generals of each party.

Although compromising on Sagawa, Moriyama and Oguchi stressed that the ruling bloc has no intention of accepting opposition calls for a Diet appearance by the first lady. Mentions of Akie Abe were found to have been deleted from the documents in question, deepening suspicions that the Finance Ministry struck a heavily discounted deal on the sale with the school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, because of its then close ties with her.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, hailed Sagawa’s scheduled appearance as a step forward.

“We want to ask him why the ministry had to falsify the documents. Was he trying to protect someone in particular?” Tsujimoto said. “We expect him to act not in the interest of the Prime Minister’s Office, but in the interest of the public.”

At the same time, Tsujimoto said Sagawa’s testimony will be far from adequate to resolve the whole controversy, emphasizing that a Diet appearance by Akie Abe remains essential.

“If the ruling bloc thinks they can seal the matter by making Sagawa the scapegoat for everything, they disregard the public too much,” Tsujimoto said.

With Abe — along with his wife — scheduled to fly to the U.S. so the prime minister can discuss North Korea with President Donald Trump as early as next month, Tsujimoto said: “The global community has been paying more and more attention to the scandal … Wouldn’t it be better for the couple to fly to the U.S. after they’ve cleared up any suspicion?”

The scandal has taken a growing toll on Abe’s government, with recent polls conducted by several media outlets all pointing to a plunge of around 10 percent in his Cabinet’s support rates. One poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun on Saturday and Sunday showed its approval ratings plummeted from 44 percent in February to 31 percent, the lowest since Abe returned to power in December 2012.