Photo/IllutrationFinance Minister Taro Aso replies to a question from Akira Nagatsuma of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan during a Lower House Budget Committee session on Feb. 13. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Finance Minister Taro Aso flatly denied his ministry offered a lease fee to Moritomo Gakuen for state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture before deciding to sell it to the now-embattled school operator at a vastly reduced discount.

“We did not offer a specific figure,” Aso told a Lower House Budget Committee meeting Feb. 13, disputing the contents of a Finance Ministry document that recently surfaced after months of official denials and which shows the ministry provided Moritomo Gakuen with a ballpark lease figure for the plot in 2015 ahead of the sale the following year.

Aso contends that is not the same as offering a specific amount for the lease of the land. His remark echoes statements in the Diet by Nobuhisa Sagawa, a former director-general of the ministry’s Financial Bureau and now National Tax Agency commissioner, that no lease fees were shown.

The ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau in Osaka held negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen from August 2013 to April 2015 over the leasing of the state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, where the school operator planned to construct an elementary school.

Bureau officials were concerned about possible legal ramifications stemming from the lease arrangement. The contents of those discussions emerged in the document released by the ministry on Feb. 9.

The document refers to a visit to Moritomo Gakuen on Jan. 9, 2015, to “convey a rough amount of the lease fee.”

Akira Nagatsuma, a member of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told the budget committee meeting Feb. 13 that the official record is sharply at odds with Sagawa’s account.

In reply, Aso said: “We were asked (by Moritomo Gakuen) about the calculation method of the lease fee. But we did not offer a specific figure.”

Nagatsuma pointed out that the document constituted an official record of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen and, therefore, contradicted Sagawa’s earlier Diet remark that the ministry had already destroyed all the relevant paperwork.

At this point, Aso again leaped to Sagawa's defense, saying, “The document is not one that recorded the negotiations (with Moritomo Gakuen).”

After the lengthy negotiations, the ministry concluded a contract with Moritomo Gakuen in May 2015 to lease the state-owned land for up to 10 years for an annual fee of 27.3 million yen ($255,400).

In March 2016, however, Moritomo Gakuen informed the ministry that its research showed there was still a lot of buried waste at the site that had not been removed.

As a result, the ministry sold the land at 134 million yen in June 2016 by discounting the garbage-removal costs of 819 million yen and other incidentals from its appraised value of 956 million yen.