Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the allegations against him and his wife Akie in an influence-peddling scandal as "malicious", accusing the chief of a nationalist school operator of not being totally honest in his sworn testimony to the Diet on Thursday.
The operator, Moritomo Gakuen, is at the centre of a political firestorm that has ensnared Mr Abe over a questionable deal in which a plot of public land in Osaka was sold to the group at only one-seventh of its appraised value.
"Neither me, my wife, nor my office is involved in the land sale," Mr Abe stressed yesterday. "I want to make that absolutely clear."
Speaking on the land sale, Finance Minister Taro Aso said yesterday that the transaction for the land was completed with the proper procedures and pricing.
Plans to build an elementary school on the plot have been scrapped since the scandal broke.
Mr Abe has said on numerous occasions he would resign if he or his wife were found to be involved in the sweetheart deal. A weekend poll by the conservative Yomiuri daily said his approval ratings had dipped by 10 points to 56 per cent.
He also said Mr Yasunori Kagoike, who heads the stridently nationalistic Moritomo Gakuen, had cherry-picked evidence to cast his wife in a bad light. In doing so, he released to the Diet e-mail exchanges between their wives from last June to this month, saying: "There is nothing at all like a one million yen (S$12,600) transaction mentioned in the exchanges."
Mr Kagoike told the Diet on Thursday that Mr Abe had donated the sum to Moritomo Gakuen via his wife Akie in September 2015.
Said Mr Abe: "It is extremely regrettable that Mr Kagoike made comments counter to the facts by laying out a situation that cannot be independently verified, such as the one million yen issue and talk of backroom dealings."
This is the latest episode of what has escalated into a he-said-she- said drama.
Yesterday, four opposition parties agreed to demand that Mrs Abe and Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui testify in the Diet. But this appears unlikely to happen, given the ruling coalition's overwhelming majority, and with Mr Abe the loudest voice in fending off such calls as Mrs Abe is a "private citizen" and there has been no evidence of criminal action.
On Thursday, Mr Kagoike said he had sought a favour from Mrs Abe to make an inquiry to the Finance Ministry on his behalf, over the possibility of extending the lease of the land. He claimed to have called her on her mobile phone and left a voice message when there was no answer. Mrs Abe's secretary Saeko Tani replied by fax a month later, saying that they have put up his request but it was not successful.
Mr Abe told the Diet yesterday that the fax was "merely a notice" on the inquiry's result, and did not amount to behind-the-scenes influence-peddling or show undue pressure was being put on the ministry.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday a letter was also sent to Ms Tani about "systematic matters", adding: "That's all there is to it. Regardless of who makes inquiries, the Finance Ministry responds in the same way."
Attorney Yoji Ochiai, a former prosecutor at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, however, told the Mainichi daily: "If it was an influential secretary to a lawmaker, it would have been possible for the aide to work on her own, but she is a government staff member sent to assist Mrs Abe. It is unlikely that she made moves without Mrs Abe's permission."