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The Asahi Shimbun/2018/3/13 14:10
http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201803130024.html

Moritomo paper scandal signifies a democracy in crisis in Japan

If public servants are allowed to tamper with official documents to suit themselves, the very foundation of public trust in the government crumbles.
The Finance Ministry and its chief, Finance Minister Taro Aso, are gravely responsible for the alteration of official documents related to the much criticized sale of state-owned land to a school operator linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The ministry on March 12 admitted it had altered as many as 14 official documents concerning the land deal with scandal-tainted Moritomo Gakuen.
The act of altering official documents represents a direct attack on the foundation of democracy.
The revelations have called into question the Abe administration’s political style and ethical standards. An exhaustive investigation into the facts must be made to uncover the entire truth.

ASO MUST TAKE THE BLAME

According to the ministry, the changes to the documents were made before they were submitted to Diet members at the initiative of the ministry’s Financial Bureau to make their content consistent with the remarks about Moritomo Gakuen-related allegations made at the Diet by Nobuhisa Sagawa, former director-general of the bureau.
Sagawa, who has just resigned as head of the National Tax Agency, consistently denied the charge that the ministry provided a special favor to the school operator.
But the ministry’s investigation has left many key questions unanswered.
Aso said, for example, that the changes were made by the hands of some officials at the bureau with the ultimate responsibility for the act falling on Sagawa.
But the core question of who actually issued the order to whom remains to be answered.
The documents in question were official records the ruling and opposition parties demanded from the ministry to clarify the facts concerning the dubious land deal at the heart of the political scandal dogging the Abe administration.
By altering the documents, the ministry has undermined the legislature’s ability to monitor the executive branch of the government based on the checks and balances system and upset the basic assumptions for more than one year of Diet debate on the matter. In other words, the ministry has tried to thwart the Diet efforts to discover the truth.
Official documents need to be properly kept so that they can serve as reliable sources of information for the public’s verdicts on the government’s policy decisions.
Doctoring such documents is a violation of the people’s right to know and a betrayal of history.
The Finance Ministry also submitted altered Moritomo documents to the Board of Audit, a Constitution-based independent body responsible for checking the government’s revenues and expenditures.
The ministry, which is in charge of managing state budgets and assets, has deceived the watchdog of the government’s books.

HARMFUL EFFECTS OF ABE’S POLITICAL POWER

What the Finance Ministry officials have done runs counter to their principal mission as “servants of the whole community” and betrays the public they are supposed to serve.
The misconduct is not unrelated to the arrogance and dearth of discipline within the administration resulting from the five years of Abe’s political dominance.
The sale of state-owned land to the school operator at a deeply discounted price came to light in early February last year. Abe’s wife, Akie, served as honorary principal of the elementary school Moritomo Gakuen had planned to open.
In a Diet session immediately after the lid was blown off the dubious deal, Abe said he would resign as both the prime minister and a Diet member if he or his wife were shown to have played a role in the land sale.
In the ensuing months, Sagawa repeatedly told the Diet that there were no records of the ministry’s negotiations with the school operator over the land deal. The official documents were substantially altered in line with his remarks at the Diet.
All references to the first lady were removed from the documents. One of the deleted passages, for instance, said a newspaper website would publish an article saying Akie Abe was moved to tears when she learned of the education policy of Moritomo Gakuen during her visit to the organization.
One of the original documents said Yasunori Kagoike, the former head of the school operator, was “involved in” Japan Conference Osaka, the Osaka branch of a conservative group of opinion leaders.
It also referred to a nonpartisan group of Diet members affiliated with the Japan Conference and said Aso would become a special adviser for the group while Takeo Hiranuma, a former economy minister, and Abe would serve as chairman and vice chairman, respectively. This part was also removed.
The revelations have raised afresh the suspicion that Moritomo Gakuen received special treatment from the ministry because of its links with Abe and his wife. Another important question is whether the bureaucrats acted on specific instructions from a politician or on their surmise of Abe's wishes.
The facts that have been revealed so far also point to the shady quid pro quo culture in bureaucracy that rewards loyalty to the people in power with high job performance assessments and promotions.
Aso promoted Sagawa to the top post at the tax agency despite strong criticism about his remarks concerning the scandal at the Diet.
Even after the newly discovered internal ministry documents describing the negotiations over the land deal with Moritomo Gakuen cast serious doubt on Sagawa’s comments, Aso and Abe defended appointing him as the head taxation official by claiming he was the best man for the job.

SUMMON SAGAWA AND ABE’S WIFE TO DIET

The Abe administration has taken steps to ensure that the prime minister and his top aides can control all senior bureaucratic appointments, including the establishment of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs.
That makes the political responsibility for such appointments all the more weightier.
The behavior of Aso and Abe that signals a lack of awareness of their responsibility for personnel decisions appears to have forced bureaucrats to serve the interests of the administration, instead of those of the public.
The Moritomo documents are not the only sign of this problem. In the scandal concerning the Kake Educational Institution’s plan to open a veterinary medicine faculty in a National Strategic Special Zone, the government first denied and later confirmed the existence and legitimacy of an education ministry document referring to the "prime minister's intent."
A similar problem was found with regard to daily activity logs of Japanese troops in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation in South Sudan that contained some controversial descriptions. The Defense Ministry initially claimed the records had been discarded, but they were later discovered.
The extremely lax management of official documents reflects the harmful effects of Abe’s political power on administrative operations.
This problem needs to be quickly rectified.
What actually transpired behind the alteration of the official documents? Why was the public property sold to a private organization at such a discounted price?
The government has the responsibility to disclose all relevant information to answer these questions. The Diet, for its part, should start fresh deliberations on the issues.
The government cannot possibly regain public trust without making serious efforts to uncover the entire truth.
It goes without saying that both Sagawa and Akie Abe should be summoned to testify before the Diet.
The scandal is an acid test for both the Diet, composed of the representatives of the people, as well as the ruling and opposition parties--a test of their commitment to monitoring and checking the government’s actions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 13


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