OSAKA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government face continued questions in the Diet about state-owned land sold to a nationalist school operator at a big discount.
Moritomo Gakuen, bought the 8,770-sq.-meter plot last June in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, for ¥134 million, roughly 14 percent of its appraised price. The plot is intended for an elementary school slated to open in April, with the prime minister’s wife, Akie, as its honorary principal.
Abe has denied any involvement in the land deal. Responding to questions about the issue from Democratic Party lawmaker Nobuyuki Fukushima in the Diet on Friday, Abe said he “would quit as prime minister and as a Diet member” if he or his wife were involved.
Moritomo Gakuen made recent headlines after one of its kindergartens in the city of Osaka distributed copies of a statement denigrating Korean and Chinese residents, prompting prefectural officials to question its principal for suspected hate speech.
The kindergarten makes its pupils memorize the Imperial Rescript on Education — an 1890 edict issued by Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) and linked with militaristic education during World War II.
The land purchased by the school operator is located near the Osaka International Airport, also known as Itami airport, and was previously owned by the transport ministry’s West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau.
Moritomo Gakuen said it was unable to provide funds for the purchase when it entered negotiations with the Finance Ministry’s local bureau over the property. As a result, the two parties in May 2015 signed a 10-year land lease contract — an unusual move for a school building project.
After beginning work on construction, the school operator found lead and arsenic contamination as well as waste material buried near the ground surface. The state subsequently paid ¥131 million to the school operator for the cleanup work.
In March 2016, Moritomo Gakuen reported more waste had been found deeper underground, which was confirmed by the Finance Ministry’s local bureau.
The school operator eventually expressed its intention to purchase the land and entered a contract to buy it at ¥134 million, nearly the same amount it received for the cleanup activities.
“Didn’t the state let go of the land for free?” Takeshi Miyamoto, a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker, asked at a Diet committee meeting on Feb. 15.
A Finance Ministry official responded that the issue was “handled appropriately based on the (cost) estimation” of the construction project.
The land is worth ¥956 million, according to a property evaluation. The West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau estimated that it was responsible for ¥822 million of land cleanup work and deducted the amount from the sale price.
However, a public site about the same size and just next to the Moritomo Gakuen-purchased estate was sold to the city of Toyonaka at ¥1.4 billion in 2010 to build a park.
The central government did not initially disclose the sale price of the land at Moritomo Gakuen’s request, but decided to make the information public this month after opposition parties stepped up attacks over the issue.
Yasunori Kagoike, president of Moritomo Gakuen, said that his organization “did not receive any favors.”
“We have done things open and above-board,” he said, adding that it had spent more than ¥100 million to remove waste material from the soil.
The government, meanwhile, does not know how much Moritomo Gakuen actually shouldered for the waste removal, according to officials.
The planned private elementary school’s website announces the school’s plans to “nurture patriotism and pride” among Japanese. One of its senior officials is a known member of conservative group Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, which supports Abe’s bid on constitutional reforms.
Moritomo Gakuen was also found to have sought donations purportedly to build a “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe memorial elementary school,” according to Democratic Party lawmaker Fukushima.
“I’m hearing about that for the first time,” Abe said on Friday, denying any involvement in the issue.
The Democratic Party on Wednesday demanded at the Lower House Budget Committee’s board meeting that Kagoike be summoned to the Diet — something the ruling coalition is reluctant to do.
On Tuesday, a group of DP lawmakers visited Osaka to conduct hearings from the Finance Ministry’s local bureau and the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau. The offices did not give a clear explanation on exactly where the waste was found and how the costs for cleanup were calculated, the lawmakers said.
They also paid a visit to Moritomo Gakuen, but was unable to reach Kagoike because he was absent they were told.