Photo/IllutrationTokuo Sakaguchi responds to questions from reporters after Osaka prosecutors decided on Aug. 9 not to indict 10 bureaucrats in the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. (Sayuri Ide)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A political scandal that haunted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for more than two years has basically evaporated with a decision by prosecutors not to hand down indictments.

But questions still remain concerning the dubious sale of state-owned land to the Moritomo Gakuen educational institution at a steep discount even as the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office decided the 10 Finance Ministry and other bureaucrats implicated in the case warranted no legal action.

The Aug. 9 decision exposed the wide gap in sensibilities between lawyers and ordinary citizens who wanted answers about policy decisions and prosecutors who apparently are eager only to take on a solid case that leads to a guilty verdict in court.

Tokuo Sakaguchi, a lawyer involved in filing criminal complaints against Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was once director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, and other ministry officials, was livid about the Osaka prosecutors' decision.

"I no longer hold any expectations of any kind for prosecutors and their special investigative department," Sakaguchi said.

Criminal complaints were submitted because of a hunger for answers as to why such a huge discount was given to Moritomo Gakuen and who ordered the tampering of public documents as well as the deletion of all references to Akie Abe, the wife of the prime minister, and other politicians.

The close to 90-percent discount on the land sale in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was not the only unusual factor behind the deal.

The land was under the management of the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau and initially a fixed term lease arrangement was made with Moritomo Gakuen so it could construct a private elementary school on the site. But for reasons never explained, the Kinki Local Finance Bureau, which handled such land sales in the region, switched the contract to an outright sale that allowed Moritomo Gakuen to pay for it in annual allotments over a 10-year period.

Between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2016, Moritomo Gakuen was the only entity allowed to enter into a fixed term lease arrangement with the understanding the contract would lead to an eventual sale of the state-owned property.

Prior to the unusual contract, Yasunori Kagoike, the former head of Moritomo Gakuen, showed Kinki Local Finance Bureau officials a photo he had taken with Akie Abe at the Toyonaka site. Kagoike later invoked the image of a "divine wind" blowing over the project that led to smoother negotiations.

Finance Ministry officials have yet to adequately explain how such matters influenced the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen.

Questions also remain about mountains of waste said to be buried on the Toyonaka site that was cited as the reason for the huge discount given by the local finance bureau, ostensibly because the balance in the sale price would be needed to clean up the site.

The difficulty in determining how the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen played out was exacerbated by the tampering and destruction of public documents by Finance Ministry officials. Those documents included a record of what transpired between ministry officials and Moritomo Gakuen.

It was also never clear if either higher ranking ministry officials or politicians gave direct instructions to tamper with and destroy the documents.

When revelations of the dubious land sale first emerged in February 2017, Abe vowed he would resign as prime minister and as a Diet member if any evidence was found that either he or his wife were involved.

Sagawa later said in the Diet that records of the negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen no longer existed.

As it turned out, the tampering and destruction of public documents occurred after Sagawa's testimony.

In March 2018, Sagawa was called as a sworn witness before the Diet, but he refused to answer questions about his involvement in altering the public documents on grounds he faced possible legal prosecution. He also denied receiving instructions from the prime minister's office.

A prosecution inquest panel ruled in March 2019 that Sagawa's statement that he gave no instructions to tamper with the public documents was not credible.

With so many unanswered questions, Osaka prosecutors offered the last opportunity to dig into the case. Their Aug. 9 decision not to indict the 10 bureaucrats shut that door of inquiry as well.

A second review by prosecutors focused on the issue of breach of trust for selling the state-owned land at such a sharp discount as well as alteration and destruction of public documents.

But an apparent cardinal rule among prosecutors is to only hand down indictments in cases where there is a high probability of a guilty verdict in court.

With regard to the breach of trust issue, prosecutors explained that the discount given to Moritomo Gakuen could not be considered to be inappropriate.

As for the altering of the public documents on the land sale, prosecutors explained that the changes did not alter the fundamental nature of what was recorded. They also said that the main purpose of the documents was to record the negotiations that led to the land deal and not uncover the involvement of any politicians.

While prosecutors said the allegations about destroying public documents had the best chance of leading to an indictment, the decision was eventually made not to pursue that course because of Finance Ministry regulations that set the period for preserving such documents to under one year.

(This article was written by Chinami Tajika and Takuji Hosomi.)