TOKYO — A political controversy swirling around the Japanese prime minister shows no sign of abating, with the head of a nationalist school swearing under oath Thursday that Shinzo Abe sent him a $9,000 donation.
The allegation, which Abe strongly denies, is hurting the previously unassailable prime minister, causing his approval ratings to plummet and sparking talk of a snap election as soon as next month.
The controversy centers on an Osaka school organization, Moritomo Gakuen, which runs a kindergarten that had exhortedchildren to cheer on Abe’s tough stance against Japan’s neighbors and had sent out notes about “wicked” Koreans and Chinese.
The organization was planning to open an elementary school, which was originally marketed as the “Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary School,” and was set to have first lady Akie Abe as its honorary principal.
But it emerged earlier this year that Moritomo Gakuen had received a huge discount on the land for the school, paying only 14 percent of the official valuation.
That sparked allegations of a sweetheart deal for an ideological ally of the prime minister.
Yasunori Kagoike, head of Moritomo Gakuen, appeared before two committees in the Diet, or parliament, on Thursday and repeated previous claims that Akie Abe had given him a donation on behalf of her husband. But this time Kagoike was speaking under oath.
“Mrs. Abe visited our kindergarten three times,” he told the House of Councillors’ budget committee. During a September 2015 visit, Kagoike said, he met the first lady in the principal’s office.
“After she told her aide to leave, there were only two of us in the room, where she said to me, ‘Please, take this. It’s from Shinzo Abe,’ and she handed me an envelope containing 1 million yen as a donation,” Kagoike said. That sum is worth about $9,000 at current exchange rates.
“Although I hear Mrs. Abe has denied the donation and claims she doesn’t recall it at all, I clearly remember it as it was such an honor for us,” he said.
Abe’s top aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, again denied the allegations, telling reporters Thursday that both government officials who were with the first lady denied leaving the room so she could meet Kagoike privately.
Akie Abe broke her silence on the issue and posted a denial of the allegations on her Facebook page Thursday night.
Amid the scandal, the license for the elementary school, which was due to open next month, has been revoked and Moritomo Gakuen is being forced to return the land.
But Kagoike’s renewed allegations — carried live by some television channels — mean that this controversy is unlikely to die down any time soon.
In addition to embroiling the first lady, it has ensnared Abe’s defense minister, archconservative Tomomi Inada.
Inada had denied ever representing Moritomo Gakuen while she was a lawyer, but she was forced to admit last week that she had indeed worked for the organization in 2004. She said she had forgotten doing the work and apologized, but her backtracking has led to widespread calls for her resignation.
The scandal has put a significant dent in Abe’s approval ratings. His support level has fallen 10 points in recent weeks, the largest decline since he took office at the end of 2012. However, it still stands at a relatively healthy 56 percent, according to the latest poll from the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun.