National / Politics

Abe denies involvement in school land deal as emails shine light on links to wife

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Facing what is possibly the biggest threat to his administration ever, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday denied the influence-peddling allegations made in sworn testimony Thursday by the head of a nationalist school firm.

Yasunori Kagoike, head of Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, alleged in Diet testimony that the name of first lady Akie Abe may have been instrumental in making a cut-price land deal possible and repeated claims that she donated ¥1 million in person to the school in the prime minister’s name.

On Friday, Abe took advantage of an appearance before the Upper House Budget Committee to deny the allegations.

“It is extremely regrettable that he made these factually erroneous accusations based on a closed-door exchange between him and my wife that there is no way to prove otherwise,” Abe said in his first official response to Kagoike’s sworn testimony.

“I’d like to emphasize that neither she nor I are in any way involved in the purchase of land for the school and the municipal certification of the institution.”

Kagoike, whose schools are known for adhering to an ultra-nationalist curriculum and who has been probed over allegations of hate speech, also accused the first lady of trying to “silence” him in a bid to hide her involvement in the building of an elementary school at the center of a sweetheart land deal.

The Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party jointly demanded Friday that the first lady be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness, but the proposal was rejected by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

It remains unclear how much damage the unfolding scandal will cause for Abe’s seemingly invincible administration.

An opinion poll published last week by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper showed the approval rate for his Cabinet stood at a still-solid 56 percent. But it also pointed to a 10-point plunge in popularity from the previous month — the biggest monthly fall since Abe returned to power in December 2012.

On Friday, Abe disclosed excerpts of an email between Akie Abe and Kagoike’s wife, Junko, that the leader said had been taken out of context during Kagoike’s hours-long testimony.

On Thursday, Kagoike criticized the first lady for sending his wife an email that could be interpreted as an attempt to silence him.

But excerpts, copies of which were transcribed and distributed to the media by LDP lawmaker Shoji Nishida, suggested Akie Abe made little effort to actively engage with Junko Kagoike, whose tone veered from cordial to hostile and borderline hysteric.

A confused Akie Abe is recorded as emailing Junko saying that she doesn’t recall ever handing Kagoike the ¥1 million donation or receiving ¥100,000 in cash in exchange for delivering a speech at his Tsukamoto Kindergarten in September 2015.

At one point, according to the copies, Junko begged the first lady to help solicit the remaining ¥350 million she said was needed to get the new elementary school certified. Akie seemingly turned down the request, saying only: “I’ll pray for you.”

The messages also show that while the two were friendly in late February, Junko Kagoike started becoming exasperated as Abe began to voice displeasure in the Diet about her husband’s “stubborn” attitude in requesting that Akie Abe serve as the school’s honorary principal.

“I was so shocked to hear what the prime minister said in the Diet that I burst into tears for the first time,” a distressed Junko wrote to Akie Abe on Feb. 25. “I was even told by a lawmaker who visited our preschool that we should remove your picture to protect the LDP. I guess the lesson is political amateurs like us shouldn’t try to meddle in the world of politics.”

The first lady responded: “I suppose you probably should’ve been more careful to make sure my involvement wouldn’t be misunderstood as some sort of string-pulling.”

It is this remark that Kagoike said was tantamount to Akie Abe trying to gag him, but the prime minister on Friday clarified that it was “obvious” the first lady was merely trying to call for the Kagoikes to be more careful.

“I found Mr. Kagoike’s accusation very malicious,” Shinzo Abe said.

In another email correspondence with Akie Abe from the same day, Junko Kagoike, apparently in response to the growing public backlash against her kindergarten’s over-the-top nationalist education, complained: “I know it’s not very Japanese of me to be this overly suspicious … but I think there is a Satan out there trying to stop decent human beings like us from trying to do decent things.”