Under Pressure, a Japanese Official Killed Himself. Now His Story Is Revealed.
Written by tokyoclub on June 26, 2021
TOKYO — When Masako Akagi’s husband killed himself in the spring of 2018, he left behind a note that put her on a collision course with Japan’s most powerful politicians.
Under pressure from the government, he wrote, he had altered documents that linked the wife of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a real estate deal that had become a national scandal. The guilt, he said, had driven him to take his own life.
The evidence of what he had endured, he told his wife before his death, resided in an extensive dossier he had compiled. The government, when it eventually faced questions about his suicide, would not say whether the dossier even existed.
Since then, Ms. Akagi has waged a one-woman fight to find the truth.
This week, her answer finally arrived: On Tuesday, the government released the more than 500-page dossier, which details her husband’s interactions with officials from the Finance Ministry, including emails and other evidence of his assertions. With her search for justice, she forced an unusual concession from a government that often actively undermines its own rules on transparency.
While the broad outlines of the story were already public knowledge, the contents of the dossier, which had some redactions, shed light on some of the remaining mysteries surrounding her husband’s death.
They also leave little doubt that he had come under enormous pressure to help obscure the connections to Akie Abe, the wife of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, in a land transaction involving right-wing supporters. Under that deal, an elementary school where Ms. Abe was an honorary principal purchased public land at an unusually low price.
The case has raised some uncomfortable questions for Shinzo Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga — who is already weakened by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic — as well as Taro Aso, the current finance minister and a former prime minister. It could also complicate the political future and tarnish the legacy of Mr. Abe, who resigned last year because of ill health but is rumored to be eyeing a return to power.
Even though the government has turned over the dossier, it has still refused to answer the biggest outstanding question about the case: Who exactly was responsible? When the documents arrived at the office of Ms. Akagi’s lawyer on Tuesday, the names of many of the people mentioned had been hidden with thick black stripes.
While the dossier’s release seems unlikely to have major political consequences for Mr. Suga — who was Mr. Abe’s chief cabinet secretary and handpicked successor — or Mr. Aso, it is a reminder that the “scandals never really were closed. They fizzled out because attention moved elsewhere,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at the Center for American Progress who has written a book about Mr. Abe.
Still, “the question of whether there was involvement at higher political levels remains totally unknown,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s going to be just another episode of blame shifting.”
Since the dossier was redacted, it offers no concrete evidence implicating specific high-level officials, and there have been no criminal charges in the case.
But the file’s disclosure poses tough questions about the style of governance that developed under Mr. Abe, who worked to shift power toward the prime minister’s office and away from the bureaucrats who run government agencies, said Izuru Makihara, a professor of political administrative systems at the University of Tokyo.
“This case clearly shows the problems that stemmed from the structure of the Abe administration,” Mr. Makihara said. He added that “you have to wonder if those structures are still in place” under Mr. Suga, whose administration has largely been seen as a continuation of his predecessor’s.
More broadly, the episode renewed attention to the problems of government transparency that have plagued Japan.
Several times in recent years, government officials have been revealed to have willfully destroyed potentially incriminating documents and tampered with government data that could have embarrassed politicians.
In one case, opposition lawmakers raised questions about the financing and guest list of an annual cherry blossom viewing event hosted by Mr. Abe, and officials later admitted that the documents had been shredded.
What’s rare about the latest case involving the land deal, said Yasuomi Sawa, a professor of journalism at Senshu University in Tokyo who advocates greater government transparency, is that “the government confirmed that they manipulated official government documents.”
In theory, Japanese law requires the government to make documents on a wide range of issues available to the public. But in reality, requests are often obstructed, and courts are reluctant to force officials to comply.
Judges “prefer to keep things moving forward smoothly rather than making a decision which can be very useful and a very important precedent for the public,” Mr. Sawa said.
Ultimately, a judge in the Akagi case requested that the government provide the file. But even then, he left the final decision up to the government.
Ms. Akagi’s husband, Toshio, had been working at an office of the finance bureau in the Kansai region in 2017 when he found himself at the center of the real estate scandal, which threatened to topple Mr. Abe.
Addressing Parliament, Mr. Abe pledged that if he or his wife were linked to the sweetheart land deal, he would resign.
Mr. Akagi quickly came under intense pressure, the dossier shows, to alter documents that could incriminate the leader. Initially, he resisted the efforts, but his superiors were unrelenting and he eventually gave in.
In March 2018, Ms. Akagi returned home to find his lifeless body and the note he had left expressing his guilt over his actions.
“My husband was struggling with the responsibility that he felt for the falsification and tampering of the documents,” Ms. Akagi told reporters on Thursday.
In June 2018, the Finance Ministry completed an investigation into the tampering, handing out minor punishments to the officials involved, many of whom were subsequently promoted.
It did not, however, explain the circumstances behind Mr. Akagi’s suicide.
After his death, Ms. Akagi demanded that his former office compensate her, arguing that his suicide should be categorized as work-related.
The office agreed and in February 2019 provided her with official notice of the decision. But despite repeated requests, it refused to provide its rationale for the conclusion, and the government refused to confirm or deny the existence of Mr. Akagi’s dossier.
Last year, Ms. Akagi decided to take her case to the courts, suing the government for 110 million yen, or nearly $1 million. She also published her husband’s suicide note in an effort to put pressure on the authorities.
She made the decision “to make sure that no other public servant would be driven to their death in the same way as my husband and to carry out his wishes to have the facts accounted for in a public space,” she said Thursday.
Her work, she said, was not finished. Ms. Akagi said she believed that responsibility for her husband’s death ultimately lies with Mr. Aso, adding that she thought he was protecting himself and the former first couple.
Mr. Aso has said that he has no plans to ask his ministry to open a new investigation into the case or reveal the information that the government has so far kept hidden.
Mr. Aso and the finance officials, Ms. Akagi said, should not be the ones to make that decision. “They are the ones who are in the position to be investigated,” she said. “They are not in the position to say whether or not an investigation should be conducted.”
Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.