The head of a Japanese nationalist educator, under fire for a sweetheart land deal that has dented Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's popularity, told the Diet under oath that he was "surprised at such a drastic and unexpected price cut".
Mr Yasunori Kagoike also reiterated his claim that Mr Abe made a donation of 1 million yen (S$12,600) to his Moritomo Gakuen outfit via his wife Akie, prompting Tokyo to issue a quick denial and opposition lawmakers to intensify their calls for Mrs Abe to testify.
The operator was sold a plot of public land in Osaka for just one- seventh of the appraised market value, to build an elementary school that was at first to be named the Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary.
Mr Kagoike yesterday described how he came to receive the donation on Sept 5, 2015, when Mrs Abe delivered a speech at the operator's Tsukamoto Kindergarten. If found to be lying, he faces up to 10 years in prison for perjury.
He testified: "She told her aide to leave and there were only two of us in the room when she said to me, 'I'm sorry to have you by yourself. Please (take this), it's from Shinzo Abe', and she handed me an envelope containing 1 million yen."
About the scandal
The scandal involving Moritomo Gakuen first erupted over a deal in which it bought a plot of public land at one-seventh of its market valuation.
Opposition lawmakers have alleged political collusion, given that Moritomo chief Yasunori Kagoike is a director of the influential right-wing lobby Nippon Kaigi, which counts among its brethren several ministers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Moritomo also runs the Tsukamoto Kindergarten, which is known for making pupils as young as three bow to portraits of the Emperor and recite daily the militaristic Imperial Rescript edict of 1890.
The pupils chanted nationalist, jingoistic rhetoric at a 2015 sports meet: "We hope China and South Korea, which treat Japan as a villain, will mend their ways and won't teach lies using history textbooks."
Mr Kagoike, addressing the media yesterday, said: "It is important to teach the correct education to children when they are young."
Mr and Mrs Abe, who have previously praised Moritomo's nationalistic ideologies, have quickly distanced themselves from the scandal. Mr Abe's approval ratings fell 10 points to 56 per cent in a poll by the conservative Yomiuri daily at the weekend, and the dent in support may reduce the likelihood of an early election. The Prime Minister has said he would resign if he or his wife were found to have been involved in the controversial land deal.
Mrs Abe, who was to be honorary principal of the new elementary school that was eventually renamed after she voiced her objections, stepped down from her post.
Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga stressed yesterday that neither Mr Abe nor his wife had ever made any donation to the school. He also questioned Mr Kagoike's use of the word "discount", saying the cost was calculated based on real-estate valuation and the price of waste removal.
The loquacious Mr Kagoike yesterday alleged political interference and accused his erstwhile supporters of throwing him under the bus, with "key government figures and the Osaka governor (laying) the blame on me alone".
He added that his former lawyer told him to "lie low for 10 days" as an instruction from a high-ranking Finance Ministry official. He also alleged that Mrs Abe sought to silence him, via an e-mail sent to his wife that read: "I can imagine you and your husband are now in trouble, but I also would like you to understand that my husband, too, has been embroiled in trouble. Please make sure that suspicions won't arise to the effect that something was going on behind the scenes because of my involvement."
Mr Kagoike also told a news conference after the full-day Diet session that he thought Mr Abe was not personally involved in the saga, which was the doing of "his underlings and the people around him".