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Opposition calls on LDP to summon school operator as scandal widens

Yasunori Kagoike (Mainichi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The main opposition party called Friday for a representative of the academic organization linked to a land purchase controversy, which has engulfed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie, to be hauled before parliament to shed light on the matter.

Senior officials of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as the government declined, however, to immediately meet the request to summon Yasunori Kagoike, administrator of Moritomo Gakuen, as an unsworn witness, saying the case should be addressed cautiously.

The scandal concerns the possible involvement of lawmakers and local assembly members from the LDP or bureaucrats in Moritomo's discounted purchase of the land from the state to build its elementary school in Osaka.

Abe, the LDP leader, has denied involvement in the issue, even though his wife had been named the honorary principal of the yet-to-be-opened elementary school before recently stepping down as the land deal controversy gathered pace.

Masaji Matsuyama, head of the LDP's Diet Affairs Committee, told reporters, "Hauling Mr. Kagoike to the Diet cannot be made mandatory because he holds no public office." He made the comment after meeting with his Democratic Party counterpart Shimba Kazuya who called for LDP cooperation to summon Kagoike.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sounded unwilling to call Kagoike to the Diet, saying, "Generally speaking, investigations into issues that have no illegalities should be conducted carefully."

Shimba said, "I don't understand why Mr. Kagoike and others will not be summoned to the Diet. Are they trying to cover up the issue?"

Shimba said he also called for the summoning of Hidenori Sakota, former head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, who was involved in the land sale negotiations with the school operator. Sakota now heads the National Tax Administration.

Focus has been also on the issue of Akie Abe's capacity in her involvement in the organization.

She gave a speech at a kindergarten operated by Moritomo in the western city on Sept. 5, 2016, accompanied by state-paid staff, Cabinet Secretariat Councilor Eiji Habu told a House of Representatives committee, prompting the opposition parties to question the relationship between her and the school operator.

Abe denied any effect of his wife's activities on the land negotiations, saying she is a "private person." Suga said that her speech given to the Tsukamoto Yochien preschool was "part of her private actions."

In dealing with the scandal, Abe has pledged that his government will fully cooperate with the Board of Audit, which is independent of the Cabinet, in its fact-finding efforts.

The land in question is an 8,770-square-meter plot in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, that Moritomo Gakuen purchased last June for 134 million yen ($1.18 million), roughly 14 percent of its appraisal value of 956 million yen. The school operator bought the land following negotiations with the Finance Ministry's local bureau.

The government said it subtracted the cost of disposing buried waste on the site, which amounted to slightly over 800 million yen, from the estimated land value.

The issue has garnered attention in part because the Tsukamoto kindergarten promotes patriotism in a way that is reminiscent of the country's pre-World War II militaristic education system.

The preschool was also criticized for distributing to parents material disparaging of Korean residents of Japan and Chinese people, and was found to make preschoolers publicly say they are supporting Abe at a sports festival.

Kagoike is a member of conservative national group Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, which supports Abe's bid on constitutional reforms. Abe himself serves as special adviser in a group of lawmakers closely related to the conference.

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