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Suspicions are deepening over the discount sale of a government-owned tract of land to an Osaka-based school operator for the construction of a new elementary school. The sale to Moritomo Gakuen has drawn heightened attention because of the controversy over a kindergarten it runs that apparently promotes patriotism reminiscent of the nation’s wartime militaristic education — and because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie, was listed as the planned new school’s “honorary principal” until just recently, with the operator using the name of Abe himself at one point to raise funds to build the school.

The prime minister has sought to distance himself from the controversy, denying any links to the school operator. He said he protested to Moritomo Gakuen for soliciting donations to establish what it initially sought to name Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary School without his approval, and that his wife, who had given speeches at the kindergarten in 2014 and 2015, resigned from her position at the school late last month. Whether there is any connection between Abe and the operator, the questions over the land deal must be answered in a convincing manner.

In June last year, the 8,770-sq.-meter national government-owned land tract in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was sold to Moritomo Gakuen for ¥134 million — a mere 14 percent of its appraisal value of ¥956 million — after the local bureau of the Finance Ministry deducted some ¥800 million for what it estimated would be the cost of removing waste material that had been found in underground soil at the site. In 2015, Moritomo Gakuen signed a lease contract for the land on the condition that it would buy the tract within 10 years, and started construction of the school building. The waste material in question was reportedly found in the soil in March 2016.

But the way in which the cost of the waste disposal was estimated appears to be murky. Instead of actually confirming the presence of the waste material, the government calculated the ¥800 million estimate based on information that it received from the construction firm working on the site. Nor has it been confirmed that waste removal work worth the deducted ¥800 million was actually carried out. A waste disposal business operator involved in the work has been quoted as stating that about half of the tainted soil dug out of the site was reburied there. Moritomo Gakuen claims that the tainted soil in question is only being temporary stored underground.

That a government-owned land plot of similar size in Toyonaka was sold to the city in 2010 at a price of ¥1.4 billion shows just how steeply discounted the land sale was to Moritomo Gakuen.

The government denies there was any political intervention in the deal. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated the land was sold to the school operator “in a legitimate procedure and at appropriate price based on the law.” Suga said nonetheless that the process of the deal would be “thoroughly examined” by the Board of Audit.

Suspicions have emerged that political intervention was at least sought in the deal over the land. Yoshitaka Konoike, a veteran Upper House member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, said this week that he was approached by Yasunori Kagoike, administrator of Moritomo Gakuen, in 2014. The lawmaker said Kagoike, visiting him at his office in Tokyo, tried to deliver what he suspected was a parcel of money. Konoike told reporters that he believes that the man was apparently seeking political favors in the talks for the land sale for the planned school, although he denied that he approached the Finance Ministry to give the school operator a discount on the sale. Moritomo Gakuen says Kagoike merely tried to hand the lawmaker gift vouchers as a sign of condolence for his illness.

Records kept by Konoike’s office, however, show that Kagoike held 16 meetings with people from the lawmaker’s office between 2013 and 2016, including nine occasions when the office arranged for contacts between the school operator and the government side.

All these questions about the unusual land deal need to be answered. What’s at stake is whether the sale of a public property has been handled in an appropriate manner.

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