The law on the management of public documents describes administrative documents such as those concerning government decisions as the “people’s common intellectual property” that underpins a healthy democracy. Officials are required to store and manage such documents so that the government’s decision-making processes can be publicly reviewed in the future. The people’s right to know and thus keep the government in check would be undermined if these documents were destroyed or altered at the will of the bureaucracy or the administration in power.

The revelation that the Finance Ministry altered documents related to the 2016 sale of a government-owned tract of land to an Osaka-based school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, when it submitted them to the Diet last year represents a serious breach of public trust in the system. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has acknowledged that the situation could threaten public trust in the entire government administration. He offered an apology to the public, saying he is keenly aware of his responsibility as head of the government. He needs to follow through on his pledge to get to the bottom of the problem to expose why such an act — which many had said was unthinkable — had taken place, and build a mechanism to make sure such acts would never again take place.

The documents in question relate to the Finance Ministry contract to sell a 8,870-sq.-meter plot of state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture to the school operator at a steep discount for construction of a new elementary school. Since the plot was sold in June 2016 for a mere ¥134 million, a discount of as much as ¥800 million from its appraisal value, favoritism was suspected in the unusual discount. But when the issue was taken up in the Diet early last year, officials insisted that the deal was legitimate — saying the discount had been made to cover the cost of disposing of underground waste found on the site — and denied any political influence or prior negotiations with the school operator over the price.

Then on Monday, the Finance Ministry admitted that parts of the official documents on the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen had been altered between February and April last year before they were disclosed to the Diet in May. Dozens of deletions were made to a total of 14 documents and included references to the prime minister’s wife, Akie Abe, who at that time was named as “honorary principal” of the school that was to be built on the site, as well as several politicians whose aides had contacted the Finance Ministry at the request of the school operator. Also removed from the original documents were phrases like “the special nature” or “exceptional content” of the transaction with Moritomo Gakuen, as well as a sentence stating that the ministry decided to offer the price based on an appraisal made in response to a proposal from the school operator.

In admitting that the documents submitted to the Diet had been altered — days after a media report broke the story — Finance Minister Taro Aso said the documents were rewritten by some officials in the ministry’s Financial Bureau in order to avert inconsistencies with the explanations made earlier to the Diet by Nobuhisa Sagawa, then head of the bureau, about the discount land deal.

Aso did not make clear who gave the direct orders to the officials to make the changes — saying that probe by the ministry was still underway — but noted that the ultimate responsibility for tampering with the documents rests with Sagawa, who resigned last Friday as National Tax Agency chief — a position to which he had been promoted last year — after criticism against the government mounted over the problem.

If the official records of the Finance Ministry’s deal with Moritomo Gakuen needed to be changed to be consistent with Sagawa’s explanation, then the bureaucrat was effectively making false statements to the Diet — and to the voters who elected the Diet members. The act is a grave breach of public trust that places the credibility of the whole government in doubt.

Speaking at the Diet on Wednesday, the prime minister emphasized that it remains clear that neither he or his wife had been involved in the land deal. But the act of doctoring official documents must be scrutinized. The Abe administration is reportedly weighing punishing ministry officials involved in altering the documents. But it should realize the gravity of the act and understand that it cannot be dismissed by laying the entire blame on the bureaucrats..

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