Photo/IllutrationFinance Minister Taro Aso responds to questions about alleged altering of documents by Finance Ministry officials during a March 2 session of the Upper House Budget Committee. (Takeshi Iwashita)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The beleaguered Finance Ministry found itself further backed into a corner March 2 following revelations of apparent tampering of official documents related to the dubious sale of state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture to Moritomo Gakuen.

Months of stonewalling by the ministry, during which time it initially denied the documents even existed, came back to haunt it after The Asahi Shimbun quoted multiple sources March 2 as saying that original documents on the land sale may have been altered before they were submitted to opposition party lawmakers digging into a possible connection between the former head of Moritomo Gakuen and Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Pressed in the Diet by opposition party lawmakers, Finance Minister Taro Aso and his subordinates initially said they could not comment on the Asahi report and whether any documents were altered on grounds of an ongoing investigation by the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office triggered by criminal complaints against Finance Ministry officials for suspected breach of trust, destroying evidence and discarding public documents.

But later March 2, Mitsuru Ota, the director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, finally relented and pledged to investigate the matter and submit a report to the Diet on the issue by March 6.

The documents in question were compiled by the Kinki Local Finance Bureau on two occasions. The first was in May 2015 when it signed a contract with Moritomo Gakuen for a leasing arrangement on a site in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, on which the educational institution planned to construct a private elementary school.

In June 2016, the two sides entered into a new contract to sell the land at a sharp discount after Moritomo Gakuen complained about the volume of buried waste at the site.

The documents were drawn up so leading bureau officials could add their personal seals to authorize the leasing arrangement and subsequent land sale. The original documents also contained a record of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen leading up to the two contracts.

However, the copies released to lawmakers had large sections deleted, including references to the exceptional nature of the case and the action taken by bureau officials in response to requests from Moritomo Gakuen.

The documents are believed to have been altered after the Asahi published its scoop in February 2017 about the sharp discount given to Moritomo Gakuen.

A number of individuals and groups that have been pressing for a full accounting of the deal expressed growing skepticism about whether the Finance Ministry had been forthcoming in its past disclosure of information.

Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a law professor at Kobe Gakuin University, has repeatedly pressed the Kinki Local Finance Bureau to disclose documents related to the land sale to Moritomo Gakuen.

He disparaged the excuse that any official comment on the matter could affect ongoing investigations as the Diet is the "highest organ of state power." Since the Diet also has the right to investigate matters related to the way the government operates, any light shed on the scandal during Diet proceedings would in no way hinder efforts by prosecutors to get to the bottom of the case, he said.

"If public documents were altered, that points to the possibility of a crime having been committed, which would fundamentally disrupt the public's right to know," Kamiwaki said. "At the root of the problem is the Abe administration's refusal to offer an adequate explanation to the public."

Makoto Kimura, a member of the Toyonaka city assembly who submitted the criminal complaint to prosecutors about suspected breach of trust by officials of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau for selling state assets at absurdly low prices, said that if finalized documents were altered, "it will be impossible to assess later what occurred at the time."

Kimura asserted that all documents previously released voluntarily "would come under suspicion because the public would think something was being concealed."

He called for a vigorous investigation of the Finance Ministry by prosecutors.

Bureaucrats at other ministries who handle public documents on a daily basis expressed amazement that any alterations might have been made.

One farm ministry official said that even minor changes for misspelling or dropped words always required another personal seal by the official who made the revision so that anyone who perused the document later would understand why changes were made.

Yukiko Miki, who heads a nonprofit organization championing government information disclosure,

said any alteration of finalized documents should be regarded as a "malicious act" in light of current laws and regulations surrounding public documents that did not envisage such a scenario when they were drawn up.

Miki was particularly concerned that changes to official documents by government agencies would make it impossible to evaluate the decision-making process at a later date because administrative agencies would only leave records that were convenient to them.

A citizens group rallied March 3 near the Finance Ministry in Tokyo to demand that the government provide an explanation into the Moritomo Gakuen scandal.