Photo/IllutrationNobuhisa Sagawa, as director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, responds to questions in a Lower House committee session in April 2017 as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and Finance Minister Taro Aso, second from the right, listen. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The resignation of Nobuhisa Sagawa as the nation's tax chief over the Moritomo Gakuen scandal was bound to happen. But it hardly brings an end to the affair that has haunted the Abe administration for months.

Finance Minister Taro Aso announced March 9 that Sagawa, commissioner of the National Tax Agency and former director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, is stepping down.

By doing so, he said Sagawa was taking responsibility for his poor handling of questions in the Diet about the dubious sale of state-owned land to the school operator.

It is extremely unusual for the top tax official to leave office in the middle of the tax return season. Aso, who appointed Sagawa, and Abe, who approved the appointment, are largely to blame for the turmoil.

During the regular Diet session last year, Sagawa made many dubious and possibly false statements about the sale of land in Osaka Prefecture to Moritomo Gakuen at a suspiciously discounted price.

But Aso nevertheless promoted Sagawa to the top post at the tax agency and insisted he was the best man for the job during ensuing Diet sessions. Abe, for his part, backed Aso on this.

It took recent allegations that changes were made to the official documents of approval for the lease and sale of the land to the school operator, which further stoked public distrust of the ministry, for Sagawa to suddenly receive punishment and resign.

What is unacceptable is how Aso still defended his own decision during a March 9 news conference by arguing that Sagawa had acquitted himself well in handling related questions at the Diet.

Aso asserted that his decision to pick Sagawa to head the tax authority was not misguided and that he has "no intention" to let him make further explanations at the Diet.

Even more seriously, Aso was vague and evasive on the question of whether documents had been doctored.

If, by letting Sagawa go, Aso thinks the public furor will die down and the whole affair sink into a limbo of ambiguity, he is making a big mistake.

Aso, and Abe for that matter, have a duty to head a sincere government investigation into the matter and explain the findings swiftly to the public.

The appropriateness of the decision to appoint Sagawa to the post is not the only issue. The Abe administration’s political integrity itself has been called into question.

The land sale to the organization with links to Abe was first reported in early February last year.

Abe’s wife, Akie, served as honorary principal of the elementary school Moritomo Gakuen had planned to open.

The approval documents were tampered with late in that month or later, according to sources.

Did Moritomo’s relationship with Abe and his wife play any part in the apparently special treatment granted to the school operator? Or were the actions taken by the officials involved in the land deals based on their surmise, or “sontaku” to use the old-fashioned Japanese word that became popular due to the scandal, about the wishes of Abe, who had gained overwhelming political power?

The documents that are suspected to have been altered are official records the ruling and opposition parties demanded from the Finance Ministry.

If they were indeed doctored, that would mean more than one year of Diet deliberations on the matter were based on wrong assumptions.

That could cause the executive branch of the government to face serious accusations of disrespect for the legislature.

The Diet should start the process afresh and ensure there is sufficient debate on the matter.

Sagawa should also be summoned to testify before the Diet.

The Abe administration has been plagued by problems with the way it manages official documents.

Lax handling of public documents that are important sources of information to judge the appropriateness of administrative decisions and actions represents a breach of public trust.

The administration is facing a severe test of its ability to confront and tackle the problems at the root of the scandal.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 10