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Editorial: Diet should thoroughly probe land sale to school operator linked to PM's wife

Revelations that a state-owned land lot in Osaka Prefecture has been sold to a private school operator with links to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife Akie at a far lower price than its appraised value have sparked controversy. The revelations have raised suspicions that the public property was sold at an unreasonably low price although the Finance Ministry claims that the government has disposed of the land in an appropriate manner.

The 8,770-square-meter lot, situated in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, had been managed by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry's West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau. The Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau publicly solicited those who would like to buy the lot, but sold the property to Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based corporation that operates schools, for 134 million yen through a contract they signed in June last year without holding a public tender. The corporation acquired the land to build an elementary school.

At the time, a real estate appraiser estimated the value of the land at 956 million yen, which means that the government sold the land at a price more than 800 million yen lower than its projected value.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has explained that it estimated the cost of removing waste material and other garbage buried at the site at approximately 820 million yen and deducted the amount from the sales price.

However, the ministry has failed to answer questions as to how it confirmed the waste buried at the site and how much was the actual disposal cost. Furthermore, the government paid some 132 million yen for work that the corporation performed to remove contaminated soil from the site, beside the cost of removing the waste. Therefore, the government gained only about 2 million yen in proceeds from the sale of the land lot to the corporation.

Numerous questions remain as to the process of selling the land lot, including why the ministry failed to hold a public tender even though it publicly solicited those who would like to buy the property.

When government organizations sell state-owned assets, they are required by a Finance Ministry directive to publicize the sales prices and the use of the assets in an effort to ensure transparency and fairness of sales contracts. Taxpayers will suffer losses from the unfair disposal of state-owned property.

Nevertheless, the national government had initially decided to withhold the sales price of the land in the latest case in response to an information disclosure request from a member of the Toyonaka Municipal Assembly. However, the central government did an about-face and disclosed the information immediately after the assembly member filed a lawsuit asking the Osaka District Court to revoke the central government's decision.

The government initially withheld the price reportedly at the request of the school corporation. However, if government bodies were allowed to withhold such information at the instruction of buyers of state-owned assets, it would render the freedom of information system ineffectual.

It has come to light that a kindergarten operated by the Moritomo Gakuen corporation had distributed a document containing discriminatory phrases, such as "South Korean and Chinese residents of Japan who have evil thoughts," to the parents of children. This has prompted the Osaka Prefectural Government to question the president of the corporation. The revelations have raised questions as to whether the organization is qualified as an education institution in the first place.

The elementary school established by Moritomo Gakuen is scheduled to open in April 2017, and Abe's wife Akie will be appointed as honorary principal. Moritomo Gakuen at one point collected donations in the name of 'Shinzo Abe Kinen (commemorative) Elementary School.'"

Prime Minister Abe denied in a House of Representatives Budget Committee session that he was involved in the land sale or the approval of the establishment of the school, and said, "I would resign as prime minister and a Diet member if I was involved."

It remains unclear how the prime minister's name was used in the donation-collection drive. If the school corporation had used Abe's name without his consent, the prime minister should lodge a protest with the corporation.

The Diet should conduct a thorough inquiry in a bid to get to the bottom of the allegations.

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