An Osaka court determined Friday that a senior Finance Ministry official played a decisive role in the 2017 falsification of documents related to favoritism allegations against then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but denied he was personally liable for the subsequent suicide of a ministry bureaucrat.
In its ruling, the Osaka District Court dismissed a damages suit filed by the bureaucrat's wife, who claimed he killed himself due to mental anguish following the order by Nobuhisa Sagawa to alter state-owned land transaction documents related to Abe's wife, Akie.
In denying Sagawa's personal liability, the court cited a law stipulating that the state is liable for damages if a civil servant inflicts damage due to illegal actions.
"Apart from the moral responsibility Mr. Sagawa owes to (the plaintiff), he does not have a legal responsibility to apologize or explain" his actions, Presiding Judge Akira Nakao said.
In the lawsuit, filed in March 2020 following Toshio Akagi's death in March 2018, his wife, Masako Akagi, sought 16.5 million yen ($119,000) in damages from Sagawa.
The ministry had admitted in 2018 that as chief of the ministry's Financial Bureau in charge of managing state assets, Sagawa directed officials to falsify and delete parts of the documents related to Akie Abe.
In an earlier case in which the state was sued over the former ministry official's death, the government agreed in December last year to pay damages after disclosing files about the ministry's repeated orders to tamper documents and about subsequent resistance by Akagi.
Partially because that lawsuit against the state ended abruptly with the agreement to pay damages, the intent and the chain of command behind the ministry's order to tamper with documents remains unclear, as well as whether the episode was connected to the inner sanctum of the Abe administration.
Despite a request from the wife, the court did not allow parties to question Sagawa and other ministry officials, saying it could reach its decision without such questioning.
In Friday's ruling, the court did not mention whether there was any relationship between the document alteration and Akagi's death.
The plaintiff is expected to appeal the ruling.
Akagi claimed that her husband, who was working at the Kinki Local Finance Bureau, died by suicide at age 54 after suffering severe mental distress due to Sagawa ordering his subordinates, from February to March 2017, to alter documents related to a heavily discounted sale of state-owned land in Osaka Prefecture to a private school operator with ties to Akie Abe.
Akagi refused to follow Sagawa's order but was forced to work overtime to falsify the documents and eventually began suffering from depression, according to the claim.
When the tampering occurred, the prime minister was being criticized by opposition parties over allegations that the ministry gave the discount to the school operator Moritomo Gakuen in consideration of his wife's role as an honorary principal of an elementary school that was expected to open at the site.
Shortly before Sagawa started to direct the document tampering, Abe told a parliament session in February 2017, "If my wife or I were involved (in the land transaction), I would step down as prime minister and a lawmaker."
Sagawa became commissioner of the National Tax Agency in July 2017 but stepped down in March 2018 to take responsibility for the scandal.