Suspicions over a shady deal involving the sale of government-owned land to an Osaka school operator were not cleared up with the Diet testimony this week by its president. Instead they deepened. The government continued to deny what Moritomo Gakuen chief Yasunori Kagoike said in his sworn testimony, including an allegation that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife Akie donated ¥1 million to the operator for the launch of its new elementary school, as well as his “recognition” that political intervention was behind the sale of land to the school project at a steep discount. Efforts must be kept up to clarify what indeed was behind the murky deal.

Abe, who earlier said he would resign as prime minister and lawmaker if he, his wife or his office were found to have been involved in the deal, says it “has been made clear that there was no concrete intervention by politicians” in the deal with Moritomo Gakuen. His administration rejects the demand from the opposition camp that his wife, along with other parties including officials responsible for the land deal, be summoned to the Diet to testify. Following Kagoike’s testimony on Thursday, Akie Abe broke her silence by posting a Facebook message denying she made the ¥1 million donation in the name of the prime minister. But to determine who’s lying, it would be reasonable for all parties to testify under oath.

Abe’s ruling coalition was initially reluctant toward opposition demands for grilling Kagoike in the Diet over the sale of the 8,770 sq.-meter tract of government-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture for ¥134 million, a fraction of its appraisal value of ¥956 million, to build the new school there. The Liberal Democratic Party then called for summoning Kagoike to give sworn testimony — in which he could be charged with perjury if he made false statements — after he claimed that Akie Abe had donated ¥1 million on behalf of her husband to the school project, on the grounds that his remark constituted an “insult” to the prime minister. Lawmakers of the LDP-Komeito alliance who grilled Kagoike during Thursday’s testimony in both Diet chambers were apparently trying to cast doubts on the credibility of his words.

During the testimony, Kagoike said Akie Abe, who was listed as “honorary principal” of the planned elementary school until recently, provided him the ¥1 million gift when they met one-on-one during her September 2015 visit to a kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka to give a lecture. He said he never asked the prime minister for favors in the land deal but consulted with the first lady “on various matters.” He specifically said he sought Akie Abe’s help in extending his lease on the land plot — which Moritomo Gakuen eventually purchased — and received a fax message from a government official assisting the first lady stating that an inquiry with the Finance Ministry showed that his request could not be met.

The government has confirmed that Akie Abe’s assistant made an inquiry to the Finance Ministry, which was responsible for the land deal, and replied to Kagoike via fax. The prime minister said on Friday that the assistant’s inquiry was merely about the system and legal matters, and “never constituted a request or intervention, much less an undue pressure” on the ministry. He also criticized Kagoike over his allegation over the ¥1 million gift, charging that he “made statements contrary to facts by alleging things such as exchanges behind closed doors that cannot be refuted.”

Kagoike also testified to the Diet that he “recognizes” that politicians “presumably” intervened in the discount sale of the Toyonaka land. He named three politicians to whom he said he asked for cooperation over the elementary school project — though all three denied having links with him. He also said he was “surprised” that the land was sold at ¥134 million because it was a much steeper discount that he had anticipated. Meanwhile, senior Finance Ministry officials who were in charge of divisions responsible for the land sale at the time of the deal told the Diet on Friday that they had not been approached by lawmakers or their aides over the matter and that no political considerations had been made in the deal.

The Finance Ministry earlier said the land plot was sold at a discount because ¥800 million was deducted from the appraisal value for the cost of disposing industrial waste found in the soil at the site. However, it has refused to look into details of the process of negotiation with Moritomo Gakuen saying that its documentary records of the negotiations had been destroyed. Merely reiterating that the deal had been legitimate will not dispel suspicions over the land sale. A thorough investigation will be the way to clear up the mess.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.