With suicide note and new lawsuit, Moritomo cronyism saga returns to haunt Japan PM Abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologised again on March 19, three years after the scandal first became known. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - A cronyism scandal has returned 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 for the first time this week.

This comes as the widow of the late Mr Toshio Akagi, 54, sued the central government and Japan's former tax chief Nobuhisa Sagawa for 112 million yen (S$1.48 million) in damages at the Osaka District Court on Wednesday (March 18).

Mr Abe apologised again on Thursday, 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 so as to build an elementary school, for which Mr Abe's wife Akie was to be honorary principal.

Mr Abe had then told the Diet, as Japan's Parliament is known, that he would quit as Prime Minister and as a lawmaker if either he or his wife were found to be directly involved.

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 either a fine, suspension, pay cut or warning. But Osaka prosecutors declined to bring any criminal charges against the government officials involved in this case.

The guilt-ridden Mr Akagi committed suicide on March 7, 2018, five days after the falsifications surfaced in public, a year after they were made.

While the government first said the documents regarding the land deal had been trashed, it later backpedalled and released a trove of records, some of which were doctored.

The lawsuit filed by Mrs Akagi, whose first name has been withheld, said that her husband had only become suicidal because he was forced to make the revisions.

The Shukan Bunshun weekly, which published Mr Akagi's suicide note this week, said that 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.

"In the kingdom that is the Finance Ministry, it is us subordinates on the lower rungs that are sacrificial lambs that can be cut off like loose ends. What has become of this world?"

Finance Minister Taro Aso said on Thursday that 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 (LDP) calling it "old news".

Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano told The Straits Times that 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," he said.

He added that there are still many questions to be answered in the controversy, including Mr Sagawa's motives in exerting pressure on Mr Akagi.

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