Photo/IllutrationMitsuru Ota, director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, apologizes in a meeting of the Upper House Audit Committee on April 9 in response to questions from Shoji Nishida, a lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. (Takeshi Iwashita)

The Finance Ministry admitted in the Diet on April 9 that an official tried to persuade school operator Moritomo Gakuen to lie about the reason it was granted a massive discount for the sale of state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture.

Mitsuru Ota, director-general of the ministry’s Financial Bureau, told the Upper House Audit Committee that a bureau official in Tokyo asked a lawyer for Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen by phone on Feb. 20, 2017, to agree to a plan to cite the cost of removing a vast amount of buried waste at the site in Toyonaka for the discount.

Ota said the bureau official asked the lawyer to say, “I think that Moritomo Gakuen spent a considerable sum to remove buried waste at the site,” and “It's my sense that thousands of trucks were used for the operation.”

Ota made the remark in response to questions from Shoji Nishida of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In June 2016, the ministry sold the 8,770-square-meter plot to Moritomo Gakuen for 134 million yen ($1.3 million) by subtracting waste-removal costs of 819 million yen and minor expenses from the land’s appraised value of 956 million yen.

Diet deliberations in and around February 2017 focused on whether the school operator actually spent such a huge sum to remove the buried waste.

An opposition party lawmaker asked, “If more than 800 million yen was spent for the removal, it would have required around 4,000 truckloads. Did you confirm that amount of waste was removed?”

In response, Nobuhisa Sagawa, then director-general of the Financial Bureau, replied, “(Our ministry’s) Kinki Local Finance Bureau (in Osaka) confirmed that the removal was done in an appropriate manner.”

In the Upper House Audit Committee meeting held March 9, however, Ota said that Sagawa made the remark “without proper confirmation that the waste was removed appropriately.”

With regard to the fact that a Financial Bureau official tried to persuade Moritomo Gakuen to go along with the fictitious explanation for the sharp discount, Ota said, “The official wanted to make Moritomo Gakuen's explanation consistent (with Sagawa’s remarks).”

According to Ota, the official also instructed an official of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau to try to persuade Moritomo Gakuen to tag along.

But the local finance bureau official refused on grounds “it contradicts the facts.”

The lawyer for Moritomo Gakuen also rejected the request.

“What the Financial Bureau official did was clearly wrong. It is shameful and lamentable. We deeply apologize for that,” said Ota.

On April 4, Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) reported suspicions that the Finance Ministry asked Moritomo Gakuen to lie about the reason for the huge discount in the sale price of the land.

The next day, Finance Minister Taro Aso said in a meeting of the Upper House Committee on Financial Affairs, “I will confirm what the facts are.”