Japan PM caught up in scandal over pre-school

Morning assembly at Tsukamoto kindergarten in Osaka, where displays of old-style patriotism have sometimes shaded into prejudice. The school apologised on its website last week for statements that contained "expressions that could invite misunderstan
Morning assembly at Tsukamoto kindergarten in Osaka, where displays of old-style patriotism have sometimes shaded into prejudice. The school apologised on its website last week for statements that contained "expressions that could invite misunderstanding from foreigners".PHOTO: REUTERS

His wife under fire over ties to kindergarten accused of bigotry, getting illicit govt favours

TOKYO • At the ultraconservative Tsukamoto Kindergarten, caught in a swirling political scandal in Japan, children receive the sort of education their pre-war great-grandparents might have recognised.

They march in crisp rows to military music. They recite instructions for patriotic behaviour laid down by a 19th-century emperor.

The intent, the school says, is to "nurture patriotism and pride" in the children of Japan, "the purest nation in the world".

Now Tsukamoto and its supporters - including the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - are under fire. The school has been accused of promoting bigotry against Chinese and Koreans and of getting illicit government financial favours.

A growing outcry has put Mr Abe's conservative administration on the defensive and drawn attention to the darker side of an increasingly influential right-wing education movement in Japan.

  • School's owner bought land for low price

  • The land deal that turned Tsukamoto Kindergarten from a subject of raised eyebrows into a full-fledged scandal took place last year, though the details took months to emerge.

    The Finance Ministry allowed Moritomo Gakuen, the foundation that runs Tsukamoto, to have a 0.80ha vacant lot near an airport in an Osaka suburb for 134 million yen (S$1.7 million), according to government records. The land was for a new elementary school to be built by the foundation.

    The price, which was initially kept sealed, was surprisingly low. The ministry had earlier assessed the land's value at 956 million yen, seven times higher.

    In comparison, a neighbouring plot only slightly larger was bought by the local municipality for 1.4 billion yen in 2010.

    The ministry said it lowered the price to account for clean- up costs that Moritomo Gakuen would have had to bear. It also said the lot contained discarded concrete and other refuse as well as elevated levels of arsenic and lead.

    Opposition politicians are pressing the ministry to explain its calculations. The national daily Asahi Shimbun, which broke the story, quoted the school's principal, Mr Yasunori Kagoike, as saying Moritomo Gakuen had spent "about 100 million yen" on the clean-up, a fraction of the discount it received. The new elementary school now sits partially built on the lot.

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Mr Abe told Parliament on Friday that his wife, Mrs Akie Abe, had resigned as "honorary principal" of a new elementary school being built by Tsukamoto's owner.

The school sits on land that the owner, a private foundation, bought from the government at a steep discount - a deal that invited charges of special treatment after details surfaced this month.

"My wife and I are not involved at all in the school's licensing or land acquisition," Mr Abe said. "If we were, I would resign as a politician."

NO INVOLVEMENT

My wife and I are not involved at all in the school's licensing or land acquisition.

If we were, I would resign as a politician.

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE, in Parliament, distancing himself and his wife from a new elementary school being built by the owner of an ultraconservative kindergarten. He also said his wife had resigned as "honorary principal" of the elementary school.

Mr Abe and other Japanese conservatives often accuse the education system of liberal bias, seeing it as a place where left-wing teachers spread "masochistic" narratives about Japanese war guilt and promote individualism and pacifism over sturdier traditional values.

Tsukamoto is at the extreme edge of an effort by rightists to push back, said Professor Manabu Sato, who studies education at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. "It's a rejection of the post-war eduction system, whose basic principles are pacifism and democracy."

At Tsukamoto, displays of old- style patriotism have sometimes shaded into prejudice. The school apologised on its website last week for statements that contained "expressions that could invite misunderstanding from foreigners".

 

Parents said complaints about mundane-seeming matters like parent-teacher association fees would be met with chauvinistic diatribes, with school officials accusing "Koreans and Chinese with evil ideas" of stirring up trouble. They said the school's principal, Mr Yasunori Kagoike, accused parents who challenged the school of having Korean or Chinese ancestors.

"The problem," Mr Kagoike said in one notice, was that people who had "inherited the spirit" of foreigners "exist in our country with the looks of Japanese people".

Mr Abe has made overhauling Japanese education a priority throughout his career, championing a similar if softer version of the traditionalism practised at Tsukamoto.

In early pamphlets for its new elementary school obtained by the Japanese media, Mr Kagoike proposed naming it after Mr Abe.

Mr Kagoike later opted for a different name, a change that the Prime Minister said had been made at his request.

Mr Abe has supported a drive to amend history textbooks, toning down depictions of Japan's abuses in its one-time Asian empire, and he passed legislation to make "moral education" - including promoting patriotism - a standard part of the public school curriculum.

Tsukamoto has taken the patriotic approach to schooling further. It first gained notoriety a few years ago for having pupils recite the Imperial Rescript on Education, a royal decree issued in 1890 that served as the basis for Japan's militaristic pre-war school curriculum and that was repudiated after World War II.

Conservatives see the rescript as a paean to traditional values; liberals as a throwback to a more authoritarian era. It encourages children to love their families, to "extend benevolence to all" and to "pursue learning and cultivate arts" - but also to be "good and faithful subjects" of the emperor and to "offer yourselves courageously to the state" when called upon to do so.

Mr Kagoike is also a director of the Osaka branch of Nippon Kaigi, a prominent right-wing pressure group that includes Mr Abe and other influential conservative politicians as members.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'Japan PM caught up in scandal over pre-school'. Print Edition | Subscribe