Abe mired deeper in school scandal

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and his wife Akie.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and his wife Akie.PHOTO: REUTERS

Japanese PM queried over ties to right-wing foundation involved in land deal scandal

A controversy over a shady land deal involving a right-wing Japanese foundation and the schools it runs continued to dog Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday, with more revelations in the press and questions raised in the Diet.

It has emerged that the Osaka prefectural government had in 2012 eased funding loan regulations for a new private elementary school, at the request of the Moritomo Gakuen foundation.

The school, to open next month, was built on public land acquired at only one-seventh of the appraised value. Mr Abe's wife Akie had, until the scandal erupted last week, been named its honorary principal.

Opposition lawmakers, insinuating political collusion, yesterday questioned Mr Abe on the land deal and his ties with Moritomo Gakuen, which had used his name to raise funds.

"The accusations have gone a little too far. There is no question that I turned down their request to use my name, and I bear no responsibility," said Mr Abe, who repeated his pledge of last week to resign if he or his wife were found to have been involved in the land deal.


The construction site for an elementary school of Moritomo Gakuen, an educational institution, is seen in Toyonaka, Osaka, Japan, on Feb 18, 2017, in this photo taken by Kyodo. PHOTO: REUTERS

This is the second scandal involving ultra-nationalists to hit Japan in two months, after APA Hotel founder Toshio Motoya called the 1937 Nanking Massacre a lie, prompting China and South Korea to pull their athletes from the hotel for the Asian Winter Games last week.

Mr Abe was also put on the defensive on Monday when it emerged that children at the Tsukamoto Kindergarten - also run by Moritomo Gakuen - were made to cheer for him and his policies while lambasting China and South Korea.

"Go, go Prime Minister Abe! We're happy you passed security legislation at the Diet!" they said at a 2015 sports meet, referring to laws revised that year to expand the ambit of the military Self-Defence Forces. The children also said: "We hope China and South Korea, which treat Japan as a villain, will mend their ways and won't teach lies using history textbooks."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing yesterday: "Japan should deeply reflect on its past and accurately educate its next generation with the correct view on history."

Japanese opposition lawmakers argue that the act constitutes a violation of the Basic Education Law that bars schools from being used to advance political ideology.

Mr Abe has sought to distance himself from the kindergarten and its principal Yasunori Kagoike, who had, in a letter to parents leaked earlier this month, called Chinese and South Koreans "wicked".

"Of course I don't want the children to root for me like that, and I don't think it's an appropriate thing for them to say," said Mr Abe.

Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui said yesterday the city is looking into whether the kindergarten was in breach of laws, and is also reconsidering whether to approve the opening of the elementary school.

Meanwhile, the Board of Audit has launched a probe after the Finance Ministry claimed to have thrown out the records on the land deal after it was concluded.

It is too soon to tell if the scandal will hit Mr Abe's political fortunes, said Mr Ippeita Nishida, a research fellow at the Sasakawa Foundation think-tank. He cited a poll by the liberal TV Asahi showing that while 83 per cent of respondents believe the deal needs to be carefully examined, support for Mr Abe is still at 54.5 per cent.

But Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano has told The Straits Times that the latest case is "very jarring" as it involves the indoctrination of children.

"The revisionist right-wing movement in Japan is driven by elites - there are people in politics and business tied to the powerful right-wing lobby group Nippon Kaigi. And with their standard- bearer Mr Abe seemingly invincible, they have gotten louder and bolder," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2017, with the headline 'Abe mired deeper in school scandal'. Print Edition | Subscribe