Photo/IllutrationNobuhisa Sagawa arrives at the office of Finance Minister Taro Aso on March 9 to hand in his resignation as head of the National Tax Agency. (Shogo Koshida)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The abrupt departure of National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa represents the first crack in the Abe administration's insistence that there was no mishandling of records related to the dubious sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Sagawa was director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau in 2017 when he repeatedly said in the Diet that everything about the sale of land at a mind-boggling discount in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was aboveboard.

He even went as far as to state that documents related to the negotiations no longer existed, only for the Finance Ministry to release them later as a public furor unfolded.

Finance Minister Taro Aso was one of Sagawa's staunchest defenders. But on March 9, he left him high and dry, telling reporters that Sagawa, 60, would have his salary cut by 20 percent for three months on grounds he was responsible for a sharp drop in public trust in the administration's handling of official documents.

Aso added that Sagawa tendered his resignation in a meeting earlier in the day and that it was accepted, effective immediately. The salary cut would be deducted from Sagawa's severance pay, Aso added.

Aso said Sagawa decided to quit because he was director-general of the Financial Bureau when documents related to the Moritomo Gakuen land deals were submitted to lawmakers.

Last week, The Asahi Shimbun revealed that the copies given to lawmakers were apparently doctored from the original files compiled at the time the contracts for the land lease and sale were signed.

Asahi quoted several sources as saying that the changes were made after it first raised questions in February 2017 about the sharp discount given to Moritomo Gakuen for the land on which it planned to open a private elementary school.

Opposition party lawmakers demanded answers about possible favors given to Moritomo Gakuen because of the personal ties between the former head of the educational institution and Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Aso also cited Sagawa's Diet responses last year and the handling of public documents as other reasons for his resignation. Sagawa was in charge of the Financial Bureau which oversees the sale of state assets and was directly involved with the Kinki Local Finance Bureau as it closed the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen over the land sale.

In a highly unusual move, Aso also pointed to the possibility of further disciplinary measures against Sagawa even after he retired from the public sector.

He made clear that prospect depended on the outcome of a Finance Ministry investigation into the handling of official documents as well as conclusions reached by the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office in connection with criminal complaints about the possibility of breach of trust, destruction of evidence and willfull disposal of public documents.

Finance Ministry officials said the results of the investigation into whether the documents were altered would be released to the Diet on March 12.

Sagawa broke with protocol by not holding a customary news conference after he was appointed commissioner of the National Tax Agency in July 2017. His only news conference came after he tendered his resignation, during which he acknowledged he was responsible for Diet confusion about the documents originating from the Financial Bureau when he was its director-general.

When Sagawa dispensed with a news conference to mark his position at the National Tax Agency he said it was because he did not want it dominated by questions unrelated to his new job, pointedly referring to criticism that had arisen over his defense of the Moritomo Gakuen land deals.

Meanwhile, those who have long pressed the government to be more open about the land deals said the issue is far from closed with Sagawa's resignation.

Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a law professor at Kobe Gakuin University who used the information disclosure law to obtain documents from the Kinki Local Finance Bureau related to negotiations between bureau officials and Moritomo Gakuen, said Sagawa had still not given an adequate explanation about the background to the land deals and questions that have since been raised.

Sagawa did not respond to questions about whether he was involved in the altering of documents on grounds the matter was being investigated by prosecutors.