A scandal over a controversial land sale of an ultra-nationalist school for about a tenth of the market price that has been linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, thought to have faded away, has returned with a vengeance, throwing the Japanese government into turmoil.
It was thought that Abe had put the scandal behind him when he and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won Japan’s general election last October by a landslide. Now it has blown up in his face just as Japan, after decades of geopolitical action on the international stage, has sought to emerge in an important regional role in Asia.
Abe has assumed a growing role as the head of the Quad coalition that includes the US, Australia and India in seeking to curb growing Chinese expansionism across Asia. Japanese warships for the first time since World War II have begun to ply the Southeast Asian seas. He also must worry about such things as Japan’s being sidelined in possible US direct negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The story broke earlier this month in the Asahi Shimbun, which alleged that bureaucrats at the Ministry of Finance had deleted key passages from 14 documents that were submitted to parliament about the sale.
Caught in the crosshairs is Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who also serves as finance minister. The opposition, such as it is following several Abe election triumphs, promptly called for Aso’s resignation and called on opposition members in the upper house to boycott parliamentary proceedings.
For the moment, Abe is not directly linked to the rising document sandal (although a reference to his wife Akie was apparently one of the items deleted). It seems to have originated in the finance ministry bureaucracy.
One senior civil servant, Nobuhiso Sagawa, head of the National Tax Office, has resigned although not saying why. One other civil servant reportedly killed himself this week although again it is speculation that it was related to the schools scandal.
While the premier does not seem in any imminent danger it could frustrate his treasured dream of winning a third term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, a prerequisite for being prime minister.
The internal party election is in September, and Abe engineered a change in the party constitution that would allow him to serve for an unprecedented third term. That could extend his prime minister ship out to 2026 making him the longest serving premier in Japan history.
In his five years in office, Abe has enjoyed generally high public approval ratings. But if this scandal continues and deepens, the ratings will inevitably fall, and the prime minister could get into the downward spiral of falling approval ratings and resignations that has bedeviled his “revolving door” predecessors.
Abe ran unopposed for his second tern, but if he is regarded as badly wounded by the returning scandal, he could attract opposition from more than just no-hopers. Several LDP bigwigs are known to covet the position and might challenge him in September.
“Abe’s chances of winning a third term have plummeted,” said Tobias Harris, a noted commentator on Japan politics.
The scandal involves the 2016 purchase of a plot of land in Osaka by the operator of an ultra-conservative kindergarten at far below market value. The school, Moritomo Gakuen, paid about a tenth of the price that a similarly situated piece of land was said to cost.
It was thus alleged then that Abe had used his influence to get a sweet deal for a school proprietor with supposed close links. At one time, Abe’s wife was an honorary principal of one of Moritomo’s kindergartens (she promptly quit after the scandal first broke).
The proprietor and principal figure, Yasunori Kagoike, claimed that the site was undervalued because an accumulation of waste had to be removed before any of the school buildings could be constructed.
He suggested that this added cost of removable was one reason why the price on the land had been discounted, not any kind of favoritism. So far, Abe has not been linked to the murky sale himself and has publicly stated he would resign if that connection were proved.
Kagoiki, the central figure in the growing scandal, defiantly maintained that Abe and Akie had donated ¥1 million ($8,900) to the school. In sworn testimony before both houses of parliament, Kagoike described how he met the prime minister’s wife on one of her visits and took her into a waiting room. Mrs. Abe, he said, asked that the person with them leave the room and then she handed over an envelope with the cash.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s official spokesman, flatly denied that either the prime minister or his wife or anyone else had given Kagoike any such donation on Abe’s behalf.
It is clear that the Abes, especially his wife, took an unusually personal interest in the school and its far-right curriculum. She spoke to the assembled children several times and allowed her name to be used as honorary principal (she has since removed her name from the school’s website).
Kagoike said he welcomed the attention of the first family and wanted to name his new elementary school the “Shinzo Abe Memorial School” until the premier asked that the name be taken off it. “I had hoped to show my admiration of Abe with the name,” he said.
He said he was pleased to have all of the attention from a powerful figure who shared his “educational philosophy.” That philosophy, however, is at the very fringe of nationalist thought. At the elementary school that Kagoike runs, students daily repeat the Meiji-Era Imperial Rescript on Education, and children bow to portraits of the emperor and empress, something not done in any other school in Japan.
It cannot help Abe to be so closely associated with the school group president whose ultra-nationalist and historical revisionist views are even more pronounced than those of the prime minister, though Abe usually tries to conceal them.