Nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen wanted to open an elementary school on this state-owned land in Osaka. (Photo by Kento Awashima)

TOKYO — The ongoing document-tampering scandal at Japan’s Ministry of Finance has taken a new turn. The ministry has admitted that its staff members altered 14 documents related to the controversial sale of state-owned land to a nationalist school operator, but it has denied they acted on instructions from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Now attention is shifting to whether ministry officials were prompted to tamper with the documents out of “consideration” for the prime minister and his government. Such doubts arise largely from the nature of the ministry’s activities, which are exposed to political influence.

The ministry’s Financial Bureau, whose staffers committed the wrongdoing, manages state-owned assets and deals with individual transactions. The bureau is also in charge of policy-making and planning of government debt issuance, as well as investing and lending the money raised.

About 370 personnel work at the bureau, which is the largest section within the ministry. However, its activities are less publicly known than the budget and tax bureaus.

Mitsuru Ota, who heads the Financial Bureau, is an elite official and is considered a candidate for administrative vice minister, one of highest positions at the ministry. But like his predecessors under Abe’s government, including Nobuhisa Sagawa, who testified before the Diet last week, Ota could be named chief of the National Tax Agency, an independent unit at the ministry.

Individual sales of state-owned land often involve political interests. A Finance Ministry source said many of the petitions submitted by lawmakers to the ministry are related to state-owned land. That aspect is behind the growing skepticism of the ministry’s claims that the officials involved were not trying to favor the Abe government, despite not being asked to do so.

As of the end of March 2017, the amount of state-owned assets came to 106 trillion yen ($989 billion), of which 70% consisted of stakes in partially privatized corporations and…