MALEVOLENT ANTI-ABE MEDIA REPORTS DETRIMENTAL TO JAPAN’S NATIONAL INTERESTS
With the discount land-sale scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie freshly dominating media attention, I recently scrutinized the 78-page report (hereafter, the Report) the Finance Ministry submitted to the Diet on March 12. I was primarily interested in two points.
First, who ordered the alteration of the public documents?
Secondly, are the Abes in fact involved in the sale of the state-owned property to an Osaka school operator, as the opposition alleges? The full disclosure of truth is mandatory, as the credibility of the Abe administration and the chance of his re-election as head of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party this fall are at stake.
After studying the Report, I have concluded that the alteration is a problem involving the staff of the Finance Ministry alone. The Report portrays how the school operator (Moritomo Gakuen) pressed no small number of extreme requests on the ministry’s bureau in Osaka regarding the use and sale of the government-owned property.
Dealing directly with Moritomo, the bureau in Osaka reported to the ministry’s headquarters in Tokyo on many important phases of the negotiations, requesting guidance and permission in handling Moritomo’s requests.
I can safely conclude that the Report proves the Abes in no way were involved in the deal which first came to light early last year.
And yet the major media outlets have forged ahead with damaging reports, obviously determined to influence the perceptions of the public against the Abes.
To state the obvious: politics and power struggles always go together. The senseless anti-Abe storm that raged across Japan last year was in effect an attempt to reinstate the bureaucratic powers that have long ruled Japan. Isn’t it ironic that in their zeal to counter the policies of the Abe administration, the opposition parties—backed by many of the nation’s media outlets—effectively sided with the conservative forces that are doggedly committed to defending Japan’s old system of bureaucratic restrictions?
The criticism one hears about Abe today is that his “strong rule” is bad for Japan. Opposition forces claim that he has demoralized and intimidated the bureaucracy. But didn’t the Democrats themselves assert, when they came to power in 2009, that the politicians should lead and the bureaucrats follow? Didn’t they try to create an administration in which ministers assumed nearly full control of the government, refusing to listen to what the career bureaucrats had to say?
Now the Democrats criticize the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which Abe introduced in 2014, for weakening the bureaucracy. It seems they have forgotten that they also strongly advocated the establishment of such a bureau.
What the Democrats Longed for
The authority of the Bureau of Personnel Affairs is expansive but still restricted. Although it has jurisdiction over personnel decisions involving assistant vice ministers (shingikan), it cannot name bureau chiefs (kyokucho) or administrative vice ministers (jimujikan), the next levels of administration. The ministries are entitled to submit their own personnel plans. Theoretically, the bureau can turn them down. To do so, however, requires convincing reasons.
Still, for politicians to have the final say on the personnel affairs of ministries has been instrumental in reminding the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki to put the national interests ahead of the interests of their respective ministries. It simply doesn’t make sense for the Democrats to criticize the system now, because that was exactly what they were after.
The media has the responsibility to report correctly on the content of the Financial Ministry report. What it reveals is the local bureau of the ministry making compromises with Moritomo, incapable of rejecting its mounting requests, while ministry headquarters in Tokyo routinely approves its decisions. For instance, the following references were found in one of the Report’s sections titled: “The Ground of the Plot in Question”:
“Moritomo asserted that the ground of the lot (on which it planned to construct a grade school) is extremely soft, and that this factor must definitely be reflected in the rent. It also maintained that foundation work more extensive than ordinary would be necessary when actually constructing the building and demanded that the state bear a share of the construction expenses.”
In other words, Moritomo demanded a discount of the rent. The bureau turned to a geological survey firm for an opinion, but got an ambiguous reply that the lot did not seem particularly soft and that whether the lot was softer than normal was hard to determine, as “the definition of ‘normal lot’ is not easy.”
Hard-pressed to resolve the matter, the bureau consulted with “local authorities and ministry headquarters.” As a result, a decision was made that the bureau would not share construction costs, but would “consider the conditions of the lot in accordance with appropriate research on its rental price, as well as the sales price if the lot were to be put on sale in the future.”
At a loss as how to deal with Moritomo’s demands, the bureau finally accepted them after getting approval from headquarters. However, these facts have been partially erased from the original records, making the doctored report read:
“After checking boring surveys with experts and hearing the opinions of real estate appraisers, a consensus was reached that the condition of the lot’s foundation constitutes a new factor affecting its rent. Therefore, we have decided to review our current appraisal in order to reflect new research on prices.”
The ministry in Tokyo brushed aside the view relayed through the Osaka bureau that the foundation of the lot “does not seem particularly soft” as well as experts’ definition of the “softness” of the ground in question, agreeing to a significant rent discount. However, references to the ministry’s involvement, as well as the fact that the survey firm denied that the ground was unusually soft, were erased from the original documents.
Conflict between Politicians and Bureaucrats
Here is another example of alteration. Moritomo had originally requested that it be permitted to rent the land (owned by the Ministry of Land, Tourism, Transport and Tourism) to construct a grade school, with an option to buy the land within eight years. This created a problem, as the nation’s Leased Land and House Lease Law stipulates that government land can only be leased for a period no less than 10 years and no more than 50. But Moritomo refused to budge. As a result, the Osaka bureau contrived to meet Moritomo’s demands by winning consent from the Osaka Civil Aviation Bureau and ministry headquarters to take “exceptional measures.”
A “preliminary contract” for a future sale of the land was drafted. The Report mentions in several spots that approval by the Director of the Finance Bureau at headquarters had been obtained before implementing these “exceptional measures.”
In the documents before alterations, expressions like “exceptional measures” and “circumstances impossible to apply the standard format” frequently appear. In the doctored version, however, they are deleted altogether.
Although he himself negotiated with representatives of Moritomo, former Finance Bureau Director Nobuhisa Sagawa told a session of the Lower House Financial Affairs Committee in March last year: “I never suggested a sale price and the Moritomo side never said anything about wishing to buy at a certain price.”
I think it safe to assume that the deletions from and other changes to the original documents have been made to conform to Sagawa’s remarks at the Diet. Presumably, the original documents have been doctored in order to protect Sagawa and the ministry itself.
And yet, leaders of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party and other opposition members charge that the bureaucrats who altered records felt pressure to do so in order to avoid having Abe resign from office over the scandal.
But was that really the case? Abe did say he would resign if evidence was found that he and his wife were involved in influencing the land sale. But that was in February last year. Two years earlier than that, the Finance Ministry is known to have also tampered with some documents pertaining to Moritomo. These incidents naturally lead one to suspect that the ministry may constantly have been altering documents .Isn’t this a matter of the bureaucrats failing to report the truth to Finance Minister Taro Aso, Abe, or other politicians?
In other words, the bureaucrats acted on their own, a reflection of the profound struggle underway between the mandarins of Kasumigaseki and the politicians of Nagatacho. This is at the heart of the current scandal. The media must understand this and make a searching inquiry into this phenomenon instead of plunging into their favorite anti-Abe campaign. Getting caught up in a negative coverage of the administration spurred by a hatred of Abe is truly detrimental to all of our national interests.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 796 in the March 29, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)