Photo/IllutrationFinance Minister Taro Aso responds to questions about altered documents at the ministry in Tokyo on March 12. (Wataru Sekita)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Finance Ministry on March 12 admitted it had altered official documents about a shady transaction of state-owned land, including the deletion of references to first lady Akie Abe and several politicians.

Finance Minister Taro Aso confirmed that 14 documents were changed before they were submitted to Diet members, who had questioned why school operator Moritomo Gakuen received such a huge discount for the state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

However, Aso said he has no intention of stepping down, despite the wave of criticism from the opposition camp.

“The issue has grave consequences,” Aso, a former prime minister, told reporters. “But I’m not thinking about resigning.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later in the day apologized for the alterations.

“This situation could shake the people’s trust in the nation’s entire administrative branch. I feel a strong responsibility as head of the administrative branch,” Abe said. “I want to express my deep apology to all of the people.”

However, he said he will keep Aso as finance minister.

“I take seriously the strict looks that people are giving us, and we will proceed with investigations to uncover why (the alterations) occurred,” Abe continued. “I want Finance Minister Aso to perform his responsibilities (by ensuring the investigation is thorough).”

The 14 ministry-approved documents concerned the leasing and the eventual sale of the land to the school operator.

At the initiative of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, officials altered sections of the documents, including the contents of negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen, so that the copies submitted to lawmakers would not contradict statements given by ministry officials in the Diet, officials said.

The lawmakers received the doctored copies after the dubious land transaction came to light in February 2017.

Moritomo Gakuen had planned to operate a private elementary school on the plot. Akie, the wife of the prime minister, had been named honorary principal of the school, fueling speculation that the sharp discount was a political favor.

Although the original documents cited the “special nature of this case,” such expressions were deleted in the copies submitted to the Diet members.

In addition, a reference to Akie’s speech at a facility operated by Moritomo Gakuen was deleted.

The names of several politicians, including Takeo Hiranuma, a former economy minister, and Yoshitada Konoike, a former state minister in charge of disaster prevention, were also omitted from the documents submitted to the lawmakers.

Opposition parties plan to hold Aso and others responsible for the actions within the ministry.

“(This scandal) is developing to an issue that could force the Cabinet to resign en masse,” Akira Koike, secretary-general of the Japanese Communist Party, said at a news conference on March 12.

Opposition lawmakers plan to renew their demands that Nobuhisa Sagawa, former director-general of the Financial Bureau, be summoned to the Diet to testify as a witness.

Sagawa, who had repeatedly told the Diet that documents related to the Moritomo land deal had been discarded, was promoted to chief of the National Tax Agency in July 2017.

However, the Finance Ministry later released some of those supposedly discarded documents. On March 9, Sagawa resigned as tax agency chief to take responsibility for the confusion.

He also received a 20-percent salary cut for three months, which was deducted from his retirement pay. The government said it is considering taking disciplinary measures against other officials.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, criticized the alterations at a news conference on March 12.

“It is an unprecedentedly abnormal situation that overturns the premises of Diet deliberations, as well as the underlying trust,” he said. “It is indispensable to make clear who instructed officials to alter the documents, when the individual did so, and for what purpose.”