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Politics

'Lost' documents mark new twist in Abe scandal

Opposition seizes on find as paper trail linking first lady to land sale

The Finance Ministry has handed lawmakers over 900 pages of documents detailing negotiations in a controversial land deal, after previously ordering them destroyed. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- Japan's Finance Ministry has released supposedly destroyed documents on the questionable sale of public land to a stridently nationalistic school operator tied to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, providing fodder for opposition lawmakers who accuse government officials of lying in parliament.

The ministry on Wednesday presented lawmakers with over 900 pages of documents detailing negotiations between officials and educator Moritomo Gakuen over a plot of public land in an Osaka suburb, which ultimately sold for far below market rates. An elementary school built on the property was supposed to open in 2017.

These records stretch from June 2013, when the school operator first showed interest in the land, to June 2016 completion of the sale. They include numerous mentions of Abe's wife, Akie, who was briefly named as honorary head of the school. Moritomo Gakuen's former head, who was arrested last year along with his wife on suspicion of fraud over education subsidies, painted a picture of a first lady who enthusiastically supported the project.

The prime minister has maintained that neither he nor his wife played a role in the sale. 

The Finance Ministry has sought to portray the scandal as the work of one man, Nobuhisa Sagawa, who headed the ministry's Financial Bureau at the time.

"What the government has been telling us for over a year is false"

Opposition lawmaker Yuichiro Tamaki

Sagawa told parliament in February 2017 that records of these negotiations no longer existed. On Wednesday, Kazushige Tomiyama, deputy director-general of the Financial Bureau, told lawmakers on the lower house budget committee that someone had ordered the records destroyed to remove any inconsistencies with Sagawa's testimony, "though the specific nature of that order is unknown."

The ministry previously admitted to altering documents for the same reason. Employees had retained copies of the deleted files on their computers, allowing them to be recovered.

Abe told a lower house committee on Wednesday that it was "extremely regrettable" that Sagawa's statements had been false, and called it "inappropriate" for documents to be destroyed in connection with parliamentary testimony.

Abe's own account of the land deal is in question. The newly released ministry documents show Saeko Tani, a former aide to Akie Abe, telling a Financial Bureau employee in November 2015 that "an acquaintance of Mrs. Abe has inquired with her about the possibility of receiving preferential treatment" to lower the lease price of public land. Moritomo Gakuen leased the Osaka plot prior to purchasing it. The Finance Ministry said it was already doing "as much as possible under the current rules."

The prime minister said in April that Tani had consulted with the ministry of her own accord after Moritomo Gakuen's ex-head Yasunori Kagoike left several messages on Akie Abe's voicemail. But the latest documents can be interpreted to mean Tani acted in response to an inquiry from Kagoike, who has also claimed that the prime minister donated money for the school.

Opposition lawmakers have called the documents proof that officials made false statements in parliament. "What the government has been telling us for over a year is false," said Yuichiro Tamaki, co-chief of the newly formed Democratic Party for the People.

The Finance Ministry documents show Akie Abe "heavily influenced" the land sale, he said, suggesting Abe's next step should be to resign as prime minister. He also called on Finance Minister Taro Aso to step down. Seiji Osaka, policy chief for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, blasted the Finance Ministry's concealment of the documents as undemocratic.

These revelations come soon after other documents emerged suggesting Abe knew of his longtime friend's ambition to open a veterinary school before the government drew up plans for such an institution in a new special economic zone. The school contract was eventually awarded to the friend's educational organization.

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