No end in sight for Moritomo scandal

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Trust in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet was badly damaged by a scandal in which internal approval documents related to the controversial sale of state-owned land to private school operator Moritomo Gakuen were altered within the Finance Ministry.

 Pushed by public criticism, the government disclosed the documents in question. However, the details of the actual situation are still unclear, such as who instructed that the documents be altered, and there is no sign of the situation stabilizing.

 When were the documents altered, and based on whose decision?

 On Monday afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, surrounded by nearly 100 reporters on the first floor of the Finance Ministry’s building, said, “I can’t make any comments since the investigation is under way.”

 Aso added, “The documents were altered by some officials at the ministry’s Financial Bureau, so the bureau’s chief holds ultimate responsibility for the issue.”

 Asked whether he had received reports or been consulted about the issue, Aso gave a prompt reply, saying, “No, I hadn’t,” implicitly emphasizing that Nobuhisa Sagawa, former director general of the bureau who resigned as the commissioner of the National Tax Agency on Friday, was the highest-ranking official who knew the facts.

 Concerning the alteration of the documents, all the government officials concerned say that the prime minister and Aso knew nothing about it.

 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Monday evening, “We’d like to continue to implement a thorough investigation into the issue.” Within about five minutes, Suga repeated the word “thorough investigation” five times.

 The government intends to emphasize a stance that aims to clarify the whole picture of the issue and draw up a scenario in which Abe and Aso will reconstruct the ministry, according to sources close to the government. 

 However, opposition parties plan to raise questions about the government’s involvement in the issue.

 “It’s absolutely impossible that the Financial Bureau solely made these decisions,” said Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Tetsuro Fukuyama.

 Concerning how to clarify the details of the alteration, Aso said, “We won’t be able to get a complete picture of the issue until the investigation ends,” indicating that it would take more time.

 A senior ruling party lawmaker expressed concern, saying, “If unclear points remain, we’ll continue to be suspected no matter how much we explain.”

 On Monday, the Finance Ministry submitted the investigation results to the Diet. However, concerning an explanation that the act was conducted in order to ensure consistency with Sagawa’s testimony, both the ruling and opposition parties criticized it, making remarks such as, “That does not constitute a reason.”

 In particular, the deletion of parts stating the involvement of politicians amounts to a contradiction of the government’s stance that denies any involvement of lawmakers.

 When Finance Ministry officials spoke at a hearing conducted by six opposition parties, a senior ministry official said that the documents had been altered based on the decision of the Financial Bureau. However, House of Representatives member Masato Imai, a member of Kibo no To (Party of Hope), asked, “Why can you say this with certainty [while you say other issues are still being investigated]?”

 On Monday, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, Diet affairs chief of the CDPJ, demanded that Sagawa and others be summoned to the Diet as sworn witnesses.

 “It is the government and the ruling parties that should take responsibility for the issue,” she said.

 While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party intends to reject the demand, some LDP members are now saying they should summon him, with a mid-ranking LDP member saying, “We have no choice but to summon Sagawa to make it clear who altered the documents for what purpose.”

 A section mentioning Abe’s wife Akie, which had been deleted from the documents, only included remarks of former Moritomo Gakuen Chairman Yasunori Kagoike, and so her involvement is unclear.

 With regard to a series of land-sale contracts, it has been learned that an official serving Akie made inquiries with the Finance Ministry. However, this was not mentioned in the original documents.

 “Rather, this fact proves that Akie was not involved,” a senior government official said.

 However, some point out that the deletion of a part concerning Akie itself indicates that bureaucrats had surmised the prime minister’s intention. There is deep-rooted criticism against Abe, with a senior LDP member saying, “In the end, the situation was caused by the prime minister himself, so he cannot escape responsibility.”

Battle over Aso’s resignation

 Opposition parties are drawing up a strategy to deliver a damaging blow to Abe’s Cabinet by forcing Aso, a core member of the government, to resign.

 Kibo leader Yuichiro Tamaki on Monday suggested that he would harshly pursue the political responsibility of Aso and others, saying: “This situation is so serious that it can be called a dark chapter in history. We can’t condone the attitudes of Aso and Abe, who are trying to pass the responsibility along to some officials of the Financial Bureau.”

 Aso had highly evaluated Sagawa, who was involved in the alteration of the documents, as the right man in the right place. When Sagawa resigned on Friday, Aso said, “I can never think the decision to appoint him to the post was wrong.”

 Some officials within the government and the ruling parties expressed complaints over Aso, with a source close to the Prime Minister’s Office saying things such as: “Sagawa’s testimony to the Diet was hasty and led to the alteration of the documents. Aso defended him too much.”

 However, Abe has repeatedly told his aides, “Aso did not know about the alteration, so I won’t make him resign.”

 Aso has supported Abe as a core member of the government since the launch of the second Abe Cabinet in December 2012. Abe fully trusts Aso and never fails to consult him over important issues such as the dissolution of the lower house. “Aso serves as a soothing influence for Abe,” an aide close to Abe said.

 When it comes to policies, Abe also highly evaluates Aso’s ability as he has played a leading role in implementing the Abenomics economic policy package together with Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda.

 If Aso leaves the Cabinet, the government will inevitably be destabilized. Aso publicly supports Abe and leads the Aso faction, the second-largest faction in the LDP. If Aso’s influence declines, it could affect the LDP presidential election to be held in autumn.

 “We’ll defend Aso to the end,” a senior government official said.

 However, the government and the LDP face a dilemma that, in case there is a growing public call for the resignation of Aso, they will be dealt a further blow if they continue to defend him, a senior LDP member said.

 Shinjiro Koizumi, the party’s chief deputy secretary general, said to reporters Monday, “The LDP is not a political party that shifts responsibility to bureaucrats, and we need to prove this.”