A cronyism scandal is back to haunt Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after a handwritten suicide note by a Finance Ministry official who had been ordered to doctor documents came to light last week.
This comes as the widow of Mr Toshio Akagi, who was 54 when he killed himself in 2018, sued the central government and Japan’s former tax chief Nobuhisa Sagawa for 112 million yen (S$1.46 million) in damages at the Osaka District Court last Wednesday.
The next day, Mr Abe apologised again, three years after the scandal first became known.
“The falsification of official documents must never be done, and we must work to prevent any reoccurrence,” he said. “I am deeply aware that the incident has shaken trust in my administration, and I apologise again to the Japanese people.”
The scandal involves right-wing education group Moritomo Gakuen, which was sold state land in Osaka at one-seventh its appraised value. It had planned to build an elementary school on the land, with Mr Abe’s wife Akie as the honorary principal.
Mr Abe had then told the Diet, Japan’s Parliament, he would quit as Premier and as a lawmaker if he or his wife had been found to be directly involved in the scandal.
At least 14 documents over the dubious sweetheart deal were falsified to scrub all mentions of the Abes, as well as of senior politicians. One of the erased mentions quoted Mrs Abe as saying: “This is a good plot of land. Please proceed.”
Mr Abe’s approval ratings tanked at the height of the scandal, as questions swirled over whether orders to grant favours had come from the very top.
The scandal brought back into vogue the archaic term “sontaku”, which refers to a workplace culture in which subordinates surmise the wishes of their superiors and act on these assumed wishes.
Mr Abe stressed that his hands were clean. A total of 38 Finance Ministry officials, including Mr Sagawa, who were found responsible were punished with a fine, suspension, pay cut or warning. But Osaka prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against the government officials involved in the case.
Mr Akagi committed suicide on March 7, 2018, five days after the falsifications surfaced in public, a year after they were made.
The falsification of official documents must never be done, and we must work to prevent any reoccurrence. I am deeply aware that the incident has shaken trust in my administration, and I apologise again to the Japanese people.
JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE, on a cronyism scandal from 2018 that involved Finance Ministry officials.
While the government first said the documents on the land deal had been trashed, it later back-pedalled and released a trove of records, some of which were doctored.
The lawsuit filed by Mrs Akagi, whose first name has been withheld, said her husband had become suicidal only because he was forced to make the revisions.
The Shukan Bunshun weekly, which published Mr Akagi’s suicide note last week, said records of all instructions and details of what falsifications were made can be found on his computer.
In his suicide note, Mr Akagi explicitly pinned the blame on Mr Sagawa, who was formerly the chief of the National Tax Agency.
“Nobody can say no to these orders,” wrote Mr Akagi, who worked at the Finance Ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau.
Finance Minister Taro Aso last Thursday said his ministry would not reopen a probe into the falsification of documents, as the previous investigation was exhaustive enough and the officials found to be involved had been disciplined.
“No new facts have been found,” Mr Aso said, with other politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party calling it “old news”.
Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Sunday Times he expects the story to have limited impact on Mr Abe’s political reign, given the focus on the unfolding coronavirus crisis.
“It is inevitably going to be contained in an echo chamber, unless any of Mr Akagi’s colleagues who were also cogs in the bigger, wider machinery are also mentally tormented enough to say something.”