The crisis that has rocked the previously unshakeable administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not the result of bungled economic policies, party in-fighting or any of the other calamities that have brought down Japanese leaders in the past, which includes Abe's first administration as prime minister. Abe is struggling to shake off a scandal involving a kindergarten.
As the SCMP recently reported, just a few weeks ago, Abe was riding high in the polls and making plans to run for an unprecedented third term as head of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party. So when questions first began to be asked about Moritomo Gakuen, a kindergarten operator in Osaka with what was initially described as a conservative curriculum, the prime minister felt confident to declare that he shared many of the philosophies of the school’s president, Yasunori Kagoike.
It would emerge in swift succession last month that the premier’s wife, Akie Abe, had been named honorary principal of a new school being planned by Kagoike; that the school was being built on land purchased from the government by Moritomo Gakuen for a fraction of its estimated value; that Abe’s wife Akie allegedly donated 1 million yen ($8,800) to the foundation in September 2015 on behalf of her husband (they both deny it), and that the operator’s philosophies imposed upon his young pupils were not just conservative, but tended towards far-right pre-war nationalism.
As the East Asia Forum adds, the scandal surrounding the sale of state-owned land to educational institution Moritomo Gakuen, and the exposure of the ultra-nationalist curricula at its privately run schools, has brought to the fore the uncomfortable questions that have always lurked in the background of Mr Abe’s political career and are now ensnaring his cabinet because of its links to far-right lobby groups. The scandal is significant not only because it has enveloped Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, but also because of what it says about Abe’s vision for Japan.
Some more details:
Last month it was revealed that Moritomo Gakuen had bought a parcel of land last year in Osaka for construction of its Mizuho-no-kuni Elementary School for 134 million yen (US$1.18 million), about a seventh of its appraised value of 956 million yen (US$8.39 million). The government has attempted to explain away the cost difference being due the need to clean up waste materials on the site. Yet a similar sized neighbouring plot of land was sold for 1.4 billion yen (US$12.3 million) in 2010.
For a country where political money scandals are a regular occurrence, this one is fairly small beer. A much bigger issue is what Moritomo Gakuen schools are teaching and how the prime minister and his wife have been tarred with their agenda.
As the details of the scandal emerged, the Osaka Prefecture Education Bureau enquired of the Ministry of Education as to whether Moritomo Gakuen had violated the Basic Education Law which stipulates that all schools, including kindergartens, ‘must not conduct political education or other political activities that support or oppose certain political parties’.
The Prime Minister and Mrs Abe, it transpires, have been deeply involved in promotion of the Moritomo Gakuen enterprise. Mrs Abe was set to be the honorary principal of the school until the land sale scandal came to light. She had publicly expressed support for the school in a message which, on prime ministerial request, has since been removed from its website, ‘stating that it is “wonderful”, “remarkable” and “fosters children to have pride as Japanese and a strong inner self”’.
The adverse impact on Abe's popularity was swift: as Reuters reports support for Abe plunged after questions were raised in parliament about the murky elementary school land deal to which his wife had ties, according to an online poll published on Wednesday. An online survey by Japan's Nikkei business daily found that Abe's support fell to 36.1 percent in a survey conducted from March 4 to 7 from 63.7 percent in the previous week. Additionally, 78 per cent of those polled reckoned that Mrs Abe should not have accepted the appointment as honorary principal at Moritomo Gakuen and 76 per cent agreed that its chair should be summoned before the Diet to explain, a course that the prime minister has so far deflected.
On one hand, Abe could simply admit his error and apologize: according to EA forum, "Abe might in the end succeed in brushing the scandal off as an error of judgment on his wife’s part. But the vast majority of Japanese are in no doubt about the inappropriateness of their role in the affair."
Many factors, apart from how successful he is in pragmatically scrambling away from his right-wing links to reclaim the centre ground, will determine whether the Osaka kindergarten scandal will knock Mr Abe off his political pedestal for very long. But the affair is a timely reminder of how important the constraints of institutions, the independent application of law and the role of a free press are in protecting against the inclinations of extremism to pervert the good sense of Japanese or any other society.
Japanese markets have so far shrugged off the news, mainly because the school scandal is still viewed as a transient factor, said Hiroaki Hiwada, a strategist at Toyo Securities Co. "Up to now, there haven't been any scandals in which Abe was the main actor, so that even though some foreign investors may be using this as a reason to hold back there are still many expectations for his policies based on the success of the recent Japan-U.S. leaders' summit," he added.
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Things got more complex last week when the head of the scandal-tainted school, Yasunori Kagoike, told a delegation of Diet members in Osaka Thursday that he received a donation from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to help build an elementary school that promotes a nationalist education. Abe has denied the claim, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Kagoike made the comments to nearly a dozen visiting lawmakers at the site of a Moritomo-run elementary school , which is embroiled in a land scandal that has reached the highest levels of government. He said that while the plan to open the new school in April was called off, the structure was built and the scandal has affected all of the companies involved in its construction.
“We tried to build this school to everyone’s intentions. I’m announcing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s donation was included,” Kagoike said in remarks picked up by news cameras from the grounds of the Mizuho no Kuni elementary school.
During his regular news conference in Tokyo late Thursday afternoon, Suga dismissed the claim. Suga told reporters that when he asked Abe about the matter, the prime minister denied making any donation himself, through his wife Akie or any other third party
The Diet delegation, led by Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto, departed for Tokyo without immediately commenting on the matter. Kagoike did not speak to reporters immediately after the visit.
Despite the denial, Kagoike’s comment is sure to refocus Diet inquiries into Moritomo back on the prime minister and possibly his wife Akie, who served as honorary principal of the new elementary school before resigning last month. Akie also spoke at the school in September 2015. Kagoike’s claim comes after a sudden visit to Tokyo on Wednesday, where he met with freelance journalist Tamotsu Sugano after canceling an appearance at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
On Wednesday night, Sugano told reporters that Kagoike had told him that another politician, a Cabinet member, was involved in the scandal in which Moritomo was able to purchase land from the government valued at ¥946 million for only ¥134 million. Abe has said neither he nor his wife was involved in the land deal.
Yet while ignoring the scandal may have been possible had Abe simply owned up to the revelations, a problem emerged once Abe decided to sternly deny any wrongdoing, and said neither he nor his wife, Akie, was involved in the deal or donating to the scandal-hit school. The PM couple dug themselves even deeper last Thursday, when Abe’s wife Akie also officially denied making any donations, the nation’s top spokesman said. According to Bloomberg, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made the announcement when speaking to reporters in Tokyo last Thursday.
The prime minister “said he had not made a donation through his wife Akie, through his office or through a third party,” Suga told reporters, adding that he had “absolutely no idea” on what basis Kagoike made his remarks.
Most problematically for Abe, on Satuday Japan's Mainichi Shimbun reported that it has obtained a copy of a post office receipt for a deposit of 1 million yen that scandal-hit Moritomo Gakuen claims to have been donated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie Abe. In other words, should the receipt be authenticated, Mr and Mrs. Abe's version of events collapses as an outright lie.
The post office receipt for a 1 million yen deposit that Moritomo Gakuen made
is seen. The school operator claims the transaction was to deposit a donation
made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie
As Mainichi adds, Moritomo Gakuen President Yasunori Kagoike claims that he received the 1 million yen donation from Akie for a new elementary school that the operator planned to open in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. The receipt copy for the deposit shows Moritomo Gakuen as the depositor handwritten over whiteout tape. When the receipt is held up to the light, the name "Shinzo Abe" can be made out underneath the whiteout. The seal of the post office that handled the payment is stamped over the whited-out portion.
The receipt confirms a previous report that Abe’s wife Akie donated 1 million yen ($8,800) to the foundation in September 2015 on behalf of her husband, according to a Twitter post by Communist Party lawmaker Kotaro Tatsumi. Akie Abe had been scheduled to act as an honorary principal of the school but has since severed links with it.
During an interview with nonfiction author Tamotsu Sugano, Kagoike's daughter said the school operator tried to make the deposit under Prime Minister Abe's name, but was told by the post office that the name of the depositor on the receipt had to match the name on the transaction form kept by the post office. She said the school operator corrected the name using whiteout tape after consulting with its accountant.
While there has been little reporting on this scandal outside of Japan, the fact that it had such a swift adverse impact on Abe's ratings before the couple officially lied could potentially result in an escalation in turmoil, should the scandal refuse to go away especially if the receipt is confirmed, and if the prime minister family is forced to explain to the Japanese public why they though they could get away with a simple lie over the growing scandal.
What happens next?
“Abe’s very unlikely to resign over this issue,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo. “It’s not illegal to make donations to schools, but the issue really is about whether Abe was involved in the land deal.”
According to the new revelations, not only was Abe supposedly involved, but he lied about said involvement.
The coming days could be key: Yasunori Kagoike, the head of a scandal-hit school operator will testify in parliament on March 23 after the lower house budget committee agreed to summon Kagoike; as a note, private citizens are rarely asked to give testimony in parliament, especially if what they are about to disclose may provide further evidence the prime minister was deliberately lying to avoid a further escalation of the scandal.