Japan govt spokesman denies PM Abe donated money to school at heart of scandal

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan on Feb 28, 2017.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan on Feb 28, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not donate money to the operator of a nationalist school at the heart of a scandal that is chipping away at the government's support ratings, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday (March 16).

Suga said he had confirmed with Abe that he had not made such a donation himself or through a third party including his wife, Akie. He added that the government was checking whether Akie had made donation as a private person.

The school's principal, who said last week he was resigning, told a group of parliamentarians earlier in the day that money donated by Abe was included in funds for an elementary school he had planned to open next month.

"According to what I confirmed with the prime minister, the prime minister himself made no donation," Suga told a news conference.

"The prime minister himself did not make a donation nor did he do so through Akie Abe or a third party. In reality, there is no need to reply but just to be sure, we are checking whether Mrs Abe made a donation as a private person."

Abe has denied that either he or Akie intervened in a murky land deal by the operator of the school, whose curriculum includes prewar-style patriotic education, or in the process of getting accreditation by local authorities.

Following weeks of questions in parliament about the affair, support for Abe fell five points to 50 per cent, a weekend poll by the Mainichi newspaper showed, off highs hit after last month's summit with US President Donald Trump.

The scandal has also put Defence Minister Tomomi Inada, a close Abe ally once seen as a potential successor, in the hot seat after she had to correct a statement about her links to the principal.

She had told a parliamentary panel she had never appeared in court on his behalf, but corrected her comment this week after court documents showed that she had.

Inada has also come under fire for her handling of a debate on a controversial peace-keeping operation in South Sudan.