National

Japan auditors release Moritomo Gakuen report but fail to answer why land was sold so cheap

Kyodo

The national accounting watchdog released a report Thursday on the murky sale of state land in 2016 involving a school operator close to the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but fell short of identifying why the land was sold at a heavily discounted price.

With the report, the Board of Audit of Japan is expected to close its investigation into the Moritomo Gakuen case. It also did not seek punishment on Finance Ministry officials who falsified relevant documents, saying that they have already retired or been reprimanded by the government.

One expert was disappointed with the results of the investigation, saying the state auditors failed to dig deeply into the alleged cronyism that has occasionally dented the Abe administration’s support ratings.

Hiroshi Arikawa, a professor at Aikoku Gakuen University, said he was “shocked” with the results of the investigation because he had expected a more in-depth report.

The report, submitted to the Diet, came after the board reopened its investigation in a rare move that followed revelations in March that ministry officials had tampered documents on the land sale in Osaka Prefecture.

By reopening their investigation, the auditors had a rare chance to uncover background information of the treatment received by Moritomo Gakuen, said Arikawa, a former official of the Board of Audit, who added that they failed to do so and only “assessed (the case) superficially.”

Opposition parties have criticized the government, voicing their suspicion that the discount was made out of consideration for the role of Abe’s wife, Akie, as honorary principal of the elementary school that was expected to open on the site.

The government has responded by saying the discount was due to costs that Moritomo Gakuen had to shoulder in removing underground waste at the plot.

Akie quit her post at the school after the scandal emerged in February last year.

In the report, the auditors, who are independent of the Cabinet or Diet, did not make a judgment on the validity of the discount, and said that the falsification of documents by the ministry was led by Nobuhisa Sagawa, then head of the ministry’s bureau in charge of administering state assets.

The 8,770-square-meter plot of land in Toyonaka was sold in June 2016 to the nationalist school operator for ¥134 million ($1.2 million) despite being valued at ¥956 million.

The auditors said they cannot confirm the base for calculating the discount, maintaining their position presented in their previous report last year.