Forget secret meetings with foreign powers, illegal wiretapping or hotel break-ins, the scandal that dogs Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe involves an elementary school. The questions troubling the public: Did the operators of the school get government land on the cheap because of their connections to Abe’s wife? And was there a cover-up? Already, the furor has accounted for the head of Japan’s tax agency and now there are calls for one of Abe’s key ministers to resign. It all adds up to a growing mess that foments doubt over Abe’s ability to push through far-ranging economic reforms -- and become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.
1. How does an elementary school threaten a prime minister?
The Asahi newspaper broke the news early in 2017 that Moritomo Gakuen -- an educational foundation known for its nationalist leanings -- had bought government land in Osaka for a fraction of the price of comparable plots. Abe’s wife, Akie Abe, had been in line to become its honorary principal until the scandal gathered steam. The head of Moritomo, Yasunori Kagoike, told lawmakers in March 2017 that he received a donation of 1 million yen ($9,400) in cash from Abe via his wife Akie. Abe and his government denied this, but their statements failed to allay public disquiet. The prime minister told parliament in February last year that he’d resign if any link emerges between himself or his wife and the land deal. Kagoike and his wife were arrested for fraud in July last year. The foundation has filed for bankruptcy.
2. Why is this in the news again?
It emerged this month that documents related to the land sale had been doctored. Then the scandal took a grim turn on March 9 with reports that a regional finance ministry bureau official in charge of the sale had taken his own life. Nobuhisa Sagawa, the head of the National Tax Agency who had previously overseen a Finance Ministry division involved in the land sale, resigned later the same day.
3. What does the finance ministry say?
The ministry has conceded its involvement in the alteration of 14 papers, including the removal of names of Abe, his wife and Finance Minister Taro Aso. Opposition lawmakers are now seeking Aso’s resignation. He declined to say if he’d quit on March 12, and said an investigation into the papers is ongoing.
4. How much is Abe at risk?
Although he won a general election last year, after the scandal broke, Abe needs to be ratified as party leader this year if he’s to have a chance of becoming the longest-standing Japanese prime minister. The scandal seriously damaged his ratings last year until concern over North Korea’s missiles dominated the news. A Yomiuri poll published March 11 showed Abe’s cabinet approval rating fell by 6 percentage points from the previous month to 48 percent. More pressing, Aso’s loss would be a huge blow to Abe. He has been finance minister and Abe’s deputy since 2012 and is a key part of the prime minister’s so-called Abenomics push to reinvigorate the economy.
5. How involved was Abe’s wife in the educational foundation?
Speaking under oath in parliament last year, school principal Kagoike said he called Akie in October 2015 -- one month after he said she visited -- to seek help with buying land to build a new elementary school. He said he received a faxed response from her staff, who told him they contacted the Finance Ministry about the issue and were unable to comply with his request. Kagoike said he was “a bit surprised” later to find the foundation had been able to buy the tract for 134 million yen, which was a discount of about 800 million yen. When asked whether there was political involvement in the deal, he told lawmakers that he thought there was. She has not commented publicly nor been called on to testify. Abe has repeatedly denied any involvement on his part, or that of Akie, in the sale of land to Moritomo Gakuen.
6. What else do we know about the educational foundation?
Moritomo Gakuen ran a kindergarten in Osaka known for espousing elements of the prewar nationalist curriculum, as well as for its explicit backing of Abe, and had planned to use the land for an elementary school. Their Tsukamoto kindergarten was known for making children bow to portraits of the emperor and recite a 19th century imperial decree on education -- practices dropped elsewhere after World War II. Last year, the kindergarten apologized for using expressions that “could cause misunderstanding among foreigners.”
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