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Grilled over Osaka land deal, Abe balks at demand for probe into LDP

by

Staff writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rejected a call by the opposition Thursday to open an investigation into his Liberal Democratic Party over its possible role in a land deal for a private, nationalist school in Osaka at the center of growing controversy involving him and his wife.

Abe, who is also LDP president, told a diet session that the most the government can do is cooperate “thoroughly” with the Board of Audit, which is independent of the Cabinet, in the fact-finding efforts.

Abe’s testimony came on the same day a new video emerged of his wife, Akie, speaking to the school in April 2014, asking the students if they knew who her husband was and hearing them say he was the man who protected Japan from China.

Meanwhile, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui indicated Thursday it was highly unlikely the Moritomo Gakuen-affiliated elementary school for which the land was purchased would open as scheduled next month due to concerns about garbage still on the site.

In an exchange in the Upper House Budget Committee with the Japanese Communist Party, Abe, facing demands from within and outside his party to deal with the growing scandal, said he would support an outside investigation into why the land was sold so cheaply.

“The heart of the matter is whether the selling price was proper. The Board of Audit should do a thorough investigation. That’s the maximum the government can do,” Abe said.

However, the prime minister also signaled that he was adverse to anything beyond that, saying the LDP would be the judge on what to do about any members who might have unduly tried to pressure the government to lower the cost.

“If it turns out that a Diet member of our party is involved, we’ll demand that that person take thorough responsibility,” Abe said, adding that he agreed with the Finance Ministry that there was no inappropriate pressure.

Abe was responding to a question by JCP member Akira Koike about a memo obtained the previous day that outlined a meeting between Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen’s officials and the LDP’s Yoshitada Konoike, a former deputy chief Cabinet secretary, who is from neighboring Kobe.

“It’s clear Moritomo Gakuen tried to use a politician to get the value of the land lowered. After Konoike’s office refused to introduce Moritomo Gakuen President Yasunori Kagoike to the Finance Ministry, the price was lowered by ¥800 million. So it’s normal to think some other politician intervened. The relevant ministries should thoroughly investigate the LDP,” Koike said.

The land in question is in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, and is part of the grounds for the Mizuho no Kuni elementary school, briefly called the Shinzo Abe elementary school before being denied permission by Abe to use his name. The central government had originally appraised the land’s value at around ¥956 million, but it was sold to Moritomo Gakuen for just ¥134 million for reasons not entirely clear but believed to be at least partially due to the cost of cleaning up buried garbage on the site.

Osaka Gov. Matsui told reporters Thursday morning that, due to health concerns, it was increasingly unlikely he would give Moritomo Gakuen’s new elementary school in Toyonaka the green light to open next month.

“There is still garbage on the site that hasn’t been removed, and the health of the children can’t be protected. It’s not an environment for a school,” Matsui said.

He added that it was inappropriate for Konoike, who denied he attempted to influence anyone on Moritomo Gakuen’s behalf at a hastily called news conference Wednesday evening, to have met with the school’s president, Kagoike. But he also said the prefecture’s investigation into whether the new school should be granted permission to operate was a separate issue.

The Moritomo Gakuen scandal also continues to involve the Prime Minister’s wife Akie. In edited footage shown on several TV stations Thursday morning, she is seen visiting Moritomo Gakuen in April 2014, asking the students if they know her husband.

At one point in the video, after Kagoike prompts one student to tell her Shinzo Abe is the man who protects Japan from China, he calls for the students, in front of Akie, to declare their support for “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” who thanks them.