Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe with Finance Minister Taro Aso at the Diet in November, 2018. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Osaka prosecutors have closed their investigation into the dubious sale of state-owned land to the Moritomo Gakuen educational institution as well as the Finance Ministry’s tampering and discarding of documents related to the transactions, without handing down any indictments.

In May last year, the Special Investigation Department of the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office decided not to indict any of the 38 bureaucrats suspected of involvement. Subsequently, the Osaka first prosecution inquest committee ruled that the earlier failure to indict was “inappropriate” with respect to 10 of the bureaucrats, including Nobuhisa Sagawa, who previously served as director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau.

Prosecutors reviewed the case in response to the panel’s ruling, only to reach the same conclusion of no indictments.

We are left to wonder why the Finance Ministry sold the state-owned land to Moritomo at a steep discount of nearly 90 percent, or more than 800 million yen ($7.57 million), from its appraised value.

We are also curious to know who ordered the relevant documents to be doctored and related reports discarded, why the decision was made and how it was put into practice.

The Special Investigation Department said it conducted a necessary and sufficient investigation but failed to collect enough evidence to justify indictments.

This explanation offers no clue as to what the additional investigations entailed or how they were carried out. It falls short of dispelling lingering suspicions.

State-owned land is joint property of the public. Official documents represent a set of joint intellectual resources that are supposed to be shared with the people.

The sale of the land at the valuable property for such an unusually low price was an obvious red flag that raised questions about the idea of fairness in public administration services.

The tampering and disposal of the documents hurt the very foundation of the public’s right to know.

The situation has to do with the principles of democracy. We cannot afford to leave the matter swept under the carpet.

Finance Minister Taro Aso should be the first to be censured.

Despite the unheard-of nature of the Moritomo scandal, Aso only allowed Sagawa to resign and opted to stay in his post. He ordered an internal ministry probe that was remarkably lacking in depth, and basically nothing more, choosing to gloss over the matter.

There are lingering suspicions about the role of Akie, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who appointed Aso to his post.

Akie once served as honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen planned to open. The fact that references to Akie and other names were removed from related documents appeared to substantiate the view that all was not aboveboard.

Abe had vowed he was ready to step down as prime minister and as a lawmaker if evidence came to light that showed he or his wife had played any role in the matter. However, the prime minister never took any steps himself to shed light on the case.

If the public administration system is failing, the Diet alone can be relied upon to question the matter.

The ruling of the prosecution inquest panel, which called for a new investigation by Osaka prosecutors, used strong language to describe the aberrant nature of the case by calling it outrageous and an “act that deviates from common sense.”

The members of the inquest panel are representatives of lay citizens who were picked by lottery. It is the duty of the Diet, which represents the public, to respond to their obvious sense of anger.

When Sagawa was summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness in March last year, he refused to testify about the tampering of documents on grounds, in his words, that he could “face criminal prosecution” if he did.

With the case closed, he no longer faces the risk of being prosecuted. Of all the measures to be taken now, the first step should be to call Sagawa back to the Diet.

The Moritomo case is now closed as far as investigating authorities are concerned. But that should not spell the end of the Moritomo “problem.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 11