New facts have emerged about Finance Ministry documents related to a dubious sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen, further fueling suspicions concerning the relationship between the scandal-tainted Osaka-based school operator and the Abe administration.

The Asahi Shimbun found evidence that the original documents describing the land sale were altered before they were submitted to Diet members for scrutiny.

Multiple informed sources said the documents were likely changed after the scandal came to light in February 2017.

If that is true, the revelations are a serious blow to the credibility of the administrative branch of the government.

The Finance Ministry has a responsibility to investigate the revelations swiftly and publish its findings.

We were startled by Finance Minister Taro Aso’s remarks about the matter at the Upper House Budget Committee session on March 2.

Responding to an opposition lawmaker’s call for the release of the documents, Aso repeatedly said, “I have to refrain from answering” questions about the topic. He cited the possibility that his remarks could influence an ongoing investigation into the land sale by the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office.

Aso’s excuse for refusing to answer questions was awkward and illogical.

The Finance Ministry has disclosed several official documents related to the matter in response to requests from the Diet. What reason does the minister have to refuse even to clarify the facts concerning the new revelations?

This is a quintessential example of political opportunism.

The original documents were created by the department handling public assets in the ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau when the land transaction went through in 2015 and 2016. The documents were stamped with the personal seals of bureau officials.

The two sets of records, the original Kinki Local Finance Bureau documents and those submitted to Diet members after the scandal surfaced in February 2017, showed the same date of drafting and document number. Both bear the seals of approval stamped by the officials.

But certain portions of the original documents were missing from those handed to Diet members.

The missing parts included descriptions about how the ministry had been dealing with various requests made by Moritomo Gakuen as well as certain phrases, such as “the contents will be an exceptional case” and “special characteristic of this case.” Also among the omissions were references to conducting a real estate assessment in response to a proposal by Moritomo Gakuen as well as the presentation of a possible price to the school operator.

Ever since it was revealed in early February last year that the public property was sold at a deeply discounted price to the school operator with a link to Abe, the ministry, in answering opposition parties’ questions about the scandal, has consistently denied allegations that special political favors were given to the organization.

The changes were made to the documents in late February last year or later, according to the sources.

Why was the step taken at that time and for what purpose? Who ordered it? All these and other key questions need to be answered through an exhaustive investigation.

The Abe administration has been beset by a steady stream of embarrassing revelations about official document mismanagement.

With regard to the scandal concerning the Kake Educational Institution’s plan to open a veterinary medicine faculty in a National Strategic Special Zone, the government first denied and later confirmed the existence and legitimacy of an education ministry document referring to the "prime minister's intent" which was initially derided by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as "bogus."

A similar problem occurred to daily activity logs of Japanese troops in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan that contained some controversial descriptions. The Defense Ministry initially claimed the records had been discarded, but they were later discovered.

Proper management of official documents is one of the two essential factors for protecting the people’s right to know, along with adequate information disclosure.

If the administration has been recklessly turning a blind eye to the importance of this issue and refusing to confirm inconvenient documents, it has committed a serious breach of public trust.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 3