The embattled head of an Osaka school operator at the center of a murky real estate deal gave sworn testimony in the Diet on Thursday that he received a ¥1 million donation in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s name to help fund a nationalist elementary school he was building.
In the nationally televised appearance, Yasunori Kagoike, head of Moritomo Gakuen, gave testimony in both chambers of the Diet to shed light on his alleged ties with Abe and his wife, Akie.
Kagoike repeated claims that he accepted an envelope containing ¥1 million in cash from Akie Abe on Sept. 5, 2015, when she was invited to deliver a speech at Moritomo’s Tsukamoto Kindergarten. Kagoike testified under oath, meaning any attempt to falsify his statements could bring perjury charges.
Such a donation is not illegal, but it would link Abe to Kagoike, who critics describe as an advocate of ultra-nationalist views.
That would be an unwelcome revelation for Abe, whose so-far invincible administration has taken a hit in the opinion polls.
According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey last week, Abe’s approval rate has plunged 10 points to 56 percent due apparently to growing misgivings about the scandal.
Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga flatly denied Kagoike’s allegations, saying the two government officials who accompanied Akie on her visit to the school both denied that Kagoike and the first lady ever met one-on-one.
“Just before she gave the speech, she and I had a brief chat in my office, alone,” Kagoike recounted. “She then took out the envelope from her purse and gave it to me. I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ and she said, ‘It’s from Shinzo Abe.’ “
“It was such a great honor for me that I have a very clear recollection of the exchange,” he said.
On Thursday night, Akie Abe broke her silence to deny Kagoike’s allegation on her Facebook page, adamant that she never handed him the donation.
Kagoike also alleged that in October 2015 he sought Akie Abe’s influence in extending a 10-year lease for a plot of land that he later purchased to build the elementary school, Mizuho no Kuni.
In October the same year, he said he left a message on her phone asking for help. Her secretary Saeko Tani, who eventually replied via fax, said that despite efforts to negotiate with the Finance Ministry, they couldn’t get the deal he had hoped for.
If Kagoike’s allegation is true, it would contradict Shinzo Abe’s denial that either he or his wife were involved in the negotiations between Moritomo Gakuen and the Finance Ministry, opposition lawmakers argued.
“If the secretary of the first lady made inquiries with the ministry on your behalf, that’s a huge deal,” said lawmaker Tetsuro Fukuyama of the Democratic Party.
On Feb. 17, Shinzo Abe told the Diet he would quit as prime minister and a lawmaker if either he or his wife were found to have “engaged in” any activities to help Moritomo Gakuen with the land deal. At the news conference, Suga said the fax was sent to one of Akie Abe’s assistants, and that the assistant, not his wife, made an inquiry to the Finance Ministry.
The fax also showed that the ministry turned down all requests from Kagoike to get more favorable conditions for the lease, Suga said, handing out copies of the fax to the media.
But during the Diet session, Kagoike said he asked Akie Abe to help, not the assistant.
To buy the plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, Moritomo Gakuen paid only ¥134 million even though a land appraiser estimated its value at ¥956 million. The scandal raised the possibility of influence-peddling, igniting speculation that the deal was manipulated by politicians with cozy ties to Kagoike.
Later in the day, Kagoike explained at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that being able to use Akie Abe’s name somehow worked to his advantage and gave “great momentum” to his effort to get a big discount on the land.
The principal, however, emphasized that he didn’t think the prime minister himself exerted direct influence to make the deal possible. Instead, Kagoike said he was rather inclined to believe that it was the bureaucrats at the Finance Ministry who pulled the strings behind the scenes.
A kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen is known for instructing pupils to recite a 19th century Imperial creed on patriotism and idolize Abe as a hero who defends Japan against hostilities from its Asian neighbors.
The school also recently came under fire for handing out to parents copies of what was widely decried as a racist statement accusing Koreanand Chinese residents of “possessing wicked thoughts.”
Kagoike also claimed he gave Akie Abe ¥100,000 as a token of his appreciation for her 2015 speech, with the word kansha (gratitude) written on the envelope. This also contradicts a remark made by Abe, who had earlier said in the Diet that his wife received no such remuneration.
Akie Abe denied the remuneration claim on her Facebook post.
Kagoike also said that in a recent email exchange with his wife, Junko, Akie Abe urged her to keep quiet about her “involvement.”
“It almost sounded like the first lady was trying to seal our lips,” Kagoike said.
Thursday’s session saw lawmakers from various parties take turns grilling Kagoike.
While Kagoike sought to emphasize his relationship with Akie Abe, members of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition tried to cast doubt on his account.
Toshiko Takeya from Komeito, for one, said that Tsukamoto Kindergarten’s website boasted that the Emperor paid a visit to the institution, when in fact there was no such visit.
Kagoike said he was unaware of any mention of the Emperor’s trip on the website and said he would apologize if there was any such description.
At the FCCJ news conference, Kagoike didn’t hesitate at all to justify the nationalist curriculum at Tsukamoto Kindergarten. He said children need to be taught a “correct” view of Japanese history early on, emphasizing Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with China and South Korea.
“Territorial issues are very important. Those territories can easily be invaded unless we stake a claim to them,” he said.
“The Japanese are a very kind people, but children must recognize what is wrong at an early age,” he said. “Otherwise, they can’t make a correct judgment when they grow up.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5