Photo/IllutrationThe plot of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, where Moritomo Gakuen had planned to operate a private elementary school (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Finance Ministry was accused of having acted illegally when it failed to disclose public documents regarding the dubious sale of state-owned land to educational institution operator Moritomo Gakuen.

A panel under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued a recommendation dated June 17 that the Finance Ministry retract the decision, citing its failure to adequately provide specific reasons for withholding public documents, which it said was an illegal act.

While the recommendation is not legally binding, it is rare for administrative agencies to ignore such requests.

"We will consider what step to take after carefully going through the recommendation," a Finance Ministry official said June 19.

The Finance Ministry decided not to disclose a document detailing exchanges between officials of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau of the Finance Ministry and officials of the Financial Bureau in Tokyo as well as the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau in Osaka.

Officials of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau in Osaka were in charge of negotiating the sale of state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to Moritomo Gakuen. The West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau owned the land and the Financial Bureau was in charge of the sale of state assets.

The plot was eventually sold at a steep discount, raising questions about the propriety of the transaction.

Another document not disclosed was a list of suggested answers for expected questions to be used by government officials when the issue of the land sale was raised in the Diet.

The matter was the focus of opposition party questioning because of the close ties between the former operator of Moritomo Gakuen and Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

She was named honorary principal of the planned school.

Hiroshi Kawauchi, a Lower House member of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, submitted a request to the Finance Ministry for disclosure of the documents, but in August 2018, the ministry announced it would not play ball. That led Kawauchi to appeal the decision, prompting the internal affairs ministry panel to look into the matter.

The panel recommendation said that a government agency was obligated to provide reasons for not disclosing documents based on the spirit of the information access law and Administrative Procedure Law.

But the panel pointed out that the Finance Ministry decision did not make clear which documents were looked at in deciding whether or not to disclose the information.

The panel concluded that the decision should be retracted since the Finance Ministry only quoted from provisions of the information access law without providing specific details for its decision.

Hiroshi Miyake, a lawyer with extensive experience in information disclosure, was blistering in his criticism of the Finance Ministry, saying it did not know the first thing about the information access law.

"The recommendation brings to light the backward-looking stance toward information disclosure of the current administration," he said. "The Supreme Court has handed down a verdict that said there was a need to provide details for each separate case on why the documents could not be disclosed."

(This article was written by Kazumichi Kubota and Junichi Bekku.)