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Editorial: Diet probe needed to get to bottom of Moritomo Gakuen land deal

When nationalist private school operator Moritomo Gakuen negotiated to buy a plot of state-owned land for a new elementary school, why did everything about the deal go exactly as the firm wanted, down to a bargain-basement purchase price?

There is already strong suspicion of political involvement in the deal to sell the government land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, to Moritomo Gakuen, which runs an Osaka kindergarten. In light of what we know so far, the government and ruling parties should not leave any probe of the deal to the Board of Audit, but rather move to get to the bottom of the situation through a parliamentary investigation.

Records have surfaced showing Moritomo Gakuen Chairman Yasunori Kagoike lobbied the office of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) House of Councillors lawmaker Yoshitada Konoike 15 times between August 2013 and March 2016 to help smooth the way for the land deal. Kagoike's recorded requests were boldfaced to say the least -- among them, "Please use political power to bring (the deal) to a swift conclusion," and "I want to ask for a discount on the land lease payments."

The records paint a picture of the Moritomo Gakuen chairman as a man in relentless pursuit of his corporation's own gain via the good offices of a politician. Looking at how negotiations with the Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau unfolded, we can see that in fact Kagoike got everything he wanted.

Records show that, at first, the Kinki Local Finance Bureau would not approve of the school operator acquiring the land unless it purchased the property. However, the bureau changed its tune after Kagoike asked Konoike's office if Moritomo Gakuen could lease the property for eight years and then buy it. In the end, the bureau signed a 10-year lease with Moritomo Gakuen on the assumption the school operator would purchase the land.

What's more, the bureau dropped the annual lease price from 40 million yen to 27.3 million yen after Kagoike complained to Konoike's office, "It's too expensive. I'd like you to do something about it." Then, when the lease was converted to the outright sale of the government land, Moritomo Gakuen was allowed to pay for it in installments instead of the one-off usual lump sum.

This can all be seen as the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau bending one rule after another to meet Kagoike's demands. The Finance Ministry has stated that "no inappropriate political pressure has been applied." However, the ministry's protestations don't match the facts.

There were also some baffling developments in the approvals process for the new Moritomo Gakuen elementary school. An Osaka prefectural council had initially withheld approval for the school over financial worries. A month later, though, the council held an extraordinary meeting and reversed its position, reporting that the school should get the green light if it met certain conditions. During that intervening month, Kagoike appealed directly to an Osaka prefectural assemblyperson to "please act favorably on the elementary school issue."

Surely we are at the point where we must hear the testimony of Kagoike and other figures tied to this case. However, the government and ruling parties have deflected opposition demands for just that by saying the Board of Audit will handle the matter.

The Board of Audit inquiry will start and end with a third-party evaluation of the land sale price to determine if the amount paid by Moritomo Gakuen was appropriate. We cannot expect any revelations on whether there was any malfeasance in the negotiations.

Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had been named honorary principal of the new elementary school, previously scheduled to open in April this year. She refused the post, however, after problems with the land deal emerged. Furthermore, Moritomo Gakuen had been using Prime Minister Abe's name in fundraising literature. The prime minister is certainly not merely a third party in all this.

If Shinzo Abe really feels he was "used" by Moritomo Gakuen, surely it would be to his benefit, too, to summon Kagoike to the Diet and find out exactly what happened.

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