Photo/IllutrationNobuhisa Sagawa, director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, answers questions about the sale of state-owned land at the Lower House Financial Affairs Committee in April 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A Finance Ministry document appears to contradict testimony in the Diet from ministry officials who said no pre-arrangements were made for the sale of state-owned land to an Osaka school operator.

The document states that the ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau will “strive to make advance arrangements with the school operator as much as possible” on a price before the land is sold.

It was dated Dec. 1, 2015, about six months before Moritomo Gakuen bought the land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, in June 2016 for 134 million yen ($1.21 million), far below the appraised value of 956 million yen.

Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a law professor at Kobe Gakuin University, obtained the document and other records from the Osaka-based bureau this month under information disclosure laws.

“The documents showed that the government was weaving a story that serves Moritomo,” he said. “The government is accountable for the issue, and what actually happened should be fully uncovered in the Diet.”

Opposition lawmakers have also demanded answers in the Diet since early last year.

Akie Abe, wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had been named honorary principal at an elementary school that Moritomo planned to build on the land in Toyonaka.

Suspecting favoritism toward Moritomo by the Abe administration, opposition parties have demanded answers on why the deal was pursued in an unorthodox manner and why the price was slashed for the school operator.

So far, the government’s answers have not held up.

The document was produced by a bureau official in charge of negotiating the land deal with Moritomo. It was part of a written inquiry made to another official handling legal matters at the bureau.

A response to the inquiry was not among the disclosed documents.

In May 2015, the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and Moritomo concluded a contract in which the school operator would rent the property for up to 10 years and then buy it.

At that time, a sales price was not set.

Seven months after the rental contract was signed, the official in charge of negotiations with Moritomo asked the legal affairs official about future paperwork procedures.

“Due to its funding difficulties, it is a possibility that the school operator may not be able to purchase the land at a price offered by the state,” the negotiating official wrote in the document. “Some form of coordination, such as providing the sales price (before the sale), will be necessary to allow the school operator to determine if it can buy it or not.”

The document then went on about making “advance arrangements” to avert a situation in which Moritomo decides not to buy the property after the appraisal value was shown.

Standard practice in the ministry is to decide on a sales price for state-owned land only after its value is provided by a real-estate appraiser.

Finance Ministry officials, as unsworn witnesses, asserted in the Diet that the bureau never discussed the price with Moritomo before the actual sale.

In Diet questioning in March 2017, Nobuhisa Sagawa, then director-general of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, which oversees sales of state-owned land, denied that any selling price was provided beforehand to the school operator.

Sagawa was later promoted to chief of the National Tax Agency.

But in an audio recording of negotiations that emerged last autumn, a bureau official was heard mentioning to the Moritomo side the figure of “130 million yen” and “We will make efforts so that (the sales price) will become as close as zero.”

Sagawa’s successor at the Financial Bureau confirmed the authenticity of the audio data in the Diet in November.

But he denied the words amounted to a “price negotiation.” He said the figure mentioned referred to the cost shouldered by the government to remove waste from the land in 2015. He said the negotiator in the recording meant that a sales price under that amount would be unacceptable.

Moritomo offered to buy the land in March 2016 after it reported to the bureau earlier that month that “new waste” had been discovered buried in the land.

The government has cited the cost to remove this new waste as the reason for the sharp discount.

However, the Board of Audit, which conducted its own study on the land in question, said in November last year that it found no justification for the sharp price cut.

The Asahi Shimbun sent a written inquiry to the Kinki Local Finance Bureau about the “advance arrangements” document on Jan. 24.

“We are preparing our answer and cannot comment now,” a bureau official said Jan. 25.

(This article was written by Sotaro Hata and Ryo Isshiki.)