By Koichi Nakano
Mr. Nakano is a political scientist in Japan/June 11, 2018
TOKYO — A sketchy land deal implicating the prime minister’s wife is revealed, then a vast cover-up by government officials. The relevant minister acknowledges the wrongdoing, apologizes and says he will fulfill his duty — by refunding a year’s worth of his salary as cabinet minister, or about $15,600.
This is what passes for government accountability in Japan today.
The senior official in question is Taro Aso, the finance minister, who — with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s backing — has refused to resign.
Details of the land deal, which involves a school operator with ties to Mr. Abe’s wife, remain unclear. But it already is clear that the cover-up is worse than the crime and yet its culprits may get away with it. Although roiled by scandals and deflated by low popularity ratings, the Abe administration seems to think it can ride out the turbulence, banking on the few remaining checks on its power and public apathy about politics. And it may be right.
In June 2016, officials in the Finance Ministry discounted by more than 85 percent the asking price for land it sold to Moritomo Gakuen, the school operator. After Mr. Abe pledged to resign if evidence was found proving his or his wife’s involvement, government officials destroyed or tampered with records that might have compromised them. According to the finance ministry itself, more than 300 passages in over a dozen official documents were doctored in early 2017 to eliminate any inconsistencies with what ministry officials told opposition lawmakers who had grilled them about the deal.
Mr. Aso, who is also deputy prime minister, and Nobuhisa Sagawa, the former director-general of the Financial Bureau, which manages state-owned property, repeatedly gave false answers during questioning by lawmakers: on 11 occasions in the case of Mr. Aso and no fewer than 43 times in the case of Mr. Sagawa. Leaked government documents also indicate that the supposedly independent Board of Audit colluded with government ministries to shield Mr. Abe.
Suspicions linger that the finance ministry may still be hiding incriminating records. Yet on May 31, the prosecutor’s office in Osaka decided not to indict any of the 38 people (including 37 government officials) it was investigating for breaching taxpayers’ trust.
In another major scandal, another educational institution benefited from exceptional favors to win a state bid to open a veterinary school. Official documents from 2015 refer to “the prime minister’s intentions” as the force behind the deal and mention meetings between a local government official and a secretary to the prime minister and between Mr. Abe and the director of the school corporation, Kotaro Kake, a friend of Mr. Abe’s from university.
Mr. Kake and Mr. Abe have denied any impropriety. But only 14 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the daily newspaper Mainichi on May 26-27 said they trusted the prime minister’s explanation about the deal; 70 percent said they did not.