In an Upper House Budget Committee session, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to offer convincing answers to questions about the Finance Ministry’s alteration of official documents concerning the contentious sale of state-owned land to a school operator.

Abe on March 19 reiterated his claim that the original documents make it clear that neither he nor his wife, Akie, was involved in the land sale or in the approval process for the private elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen planned to open on the site.

But his argument is a hard sell.

In the latest Asahi Shimbun survey, 72 percent of the respondents said they were unconvinced by Abe’s explanation about the matter. But the prime minister didn’t change his stance at the session.

One of the documents that was later altered by the ministry refers to an April 2014 discussion between Yasunori Kagoike, Moritomo Gakuen's director at the time, and officials at the ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau, which handled negotiations on the land deal. According to the document, Kagoike said he took Abe's wife to the plot in question in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

She was quoted by Kagoike as saying, “As this is good land, please go forward (with the project).”

Pointing out that his wife was not in a position to give any instructions to Kagoike, Abe said she “could not have said such a thing.” But this claim is also unconvincing.

One of the deleted passages said a newspaper website reported that Akie was moved to tears when she learned of the education policy of Moritomo Gakuen during her visit to the organization. The names of three politicians were mentioned on the same page, but they were also deleted.

Why did the ministry’s original documents for approving the land sale make such references to Akie, who is not even a Diet member?

In responding to this question, Mitsuru Ota, the director-general of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, said at the Budget Committee session, “I think that is basically because she is the wife of the prime minister.”

Ota’s remark could be interpreted as admitting the first lady’s influence over the matter. But Abe said these references to his wife were “simple descriptions of public information as facts.”

One core question is what was behind the sale of state-owned land at a deeply discounted price. But it seems there is a limit to the information we can get from Abe concerning this question.

If so, it is vital to summon key individuals to testify at the Diet. The list of crucial witnesses should include not only Akie, but also the government employee who was assigned as an aide to the first lady and served as a liaison between her and Moritomo Gakuen, as well as Hidenori Sakota, who was director-general of the Financial Bureau at the time of the negotiations over the land deal.

Another core question is whether Abe’s pledge in February last year to resign as both prime minister and Diet member if he or his wife were shown to have been involved in the matter provided the motive for the ministry’s misconduct.

With regard to this issue, Ota didn’t deny the possible influence of Abe's statement, telling a Budget Committee session last week that the ministry officials were “attentive to” remarks made at the Diet by all government officials about the matter.

In addition to Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was director-general of the Financial Bureau when the documents were altered, other senior Finance Ministry officials and officials at the Kinki Local Finance Bureau should also be questioned.

Abe has repeatedly said, “I strongly feel responsibility as the head of the administrative branch.”

This responsibility requires him to cooperate fully and sincerely with the legislature’s investigation into the scandal.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 20