National / Politics

A day after Sagawa's testimony, where do things stand on Japan's Moritomo scandal?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Following the high-profile Diet testimony by a key former Finance Ministry official, ruling lawmakers are trying to bring an end to the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, which allegedly involved Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But Nobuhisa Sagawa’s testimony revealed little, answering few of the major questions surrounding the issue, leaving many puzzled.

Here’s a breakdown of where things stand on the cronyism scandal that’s rocked the central government:

What is the scandal about?

There are two focal points to the issue.

First: Is there justification for the ministry’s heavily discounted land sale to Osaka-based nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which once held close ties with the first lady?

Second: Who was responsible for the falsification of 14 government files on the ministry’s negotiations with the school operator, from which dozens of items, including all those mentioning Akie Abe, were deleted from February to April last year?

Tuesday’s questions mainly focused on the latter issue because Sagawa was the head of the ministry’s Financial Bureau when the documents were altered, a potential violation of the Penal Code.

What was clarified through the testimony?

Not much.

Sagawa refused to answer most key questions and did not say whether he was involved in the falsification.

During four-hour Upper and Lower House sessions, he declined to answer over 50 questions, saying he is being investigated by authorities and he could face criminal prosecution.

He was summoned as a sworn witness to the Diet, meaning he could be punished if he lied or refused to answer without legitimate reasons.

The only point he clearly made was that document tampering was committed solely by the Financial Bureau, without any instructions or involvement from parties outside the office.

Specifically, Sagawa denied there was any involvement by Abe, his wife, Finance Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and their secretaries.

He didn’t, however, show any evidence to back up his statement.

What was the reaction of opposition lawmakers?

They have argued that there wouldn’t be any reason for bureaucrats to violate the law without outside pressure.

Asked why the bureau decided to falsify the documents on its own, Sagawa refused to answer, again saying that he could face criminal prosecution.

He was the main official who handled questions from opposition lawmakers in the Diet during deliberations last year over the land sale that included an 86 percent discount.

Katsuya Okada, a former foreign minister and president of the Democratic Party, said ministry and bureau chiefs usually consult with staff at the Prime Minister’s Office when drafting answers to questions posed by opposition lawmakers if the issues are related to the prime minister. Otherwise, there could be discrepancies in statements, leading to major problems, Okada wrote in a March 26 blog entry.

“I’m firmly convinced” that the Prime Minister’s Office and Sagawa closely communicated with each other in handling he scandal, he wrote.

What did Sagawa say about the ministry’s land deal with Moritomo Gakuen?

He was not at the bureau when its Kinki regional office concluded a land lease contract in 2015 and the sale of the same plot in 2016.

But, to prepare for questions from lawmakers in the Diet, he said he had asked staff about the deals and examined related “materials.” He also said “there was no influence” or “instructions” from Abe or the first lady that impacted the ministry’s decision.

Even without any clear instruction from politicians, officials are said to often surmise what their boss wants and act preemptively to please him or her, a custom now widely known as sontaku. What did Sagawa say about this possibility?

He declined to elaborate, saying that “sontaku is something that takes place inside the mind of individual people and I have no particular thing to say at the moment.”

What will come next? Can the ruling coalition bring the curtain down on the scandal now?

Political observers say the focus has shifted to whether prosecutors looking into the Moritomo Gakuen case will take action over the alleged violation of the Penal Code.

If prosecutors raid the Finance Ministry and arrest officials, most likely Sagawa, it would cause the re-flaring of the controversy and make it difficult for Abe to win a third term as head of the ruling LDP, which holds its presidential election in September.

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