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Editorial: Diet should summon chairman of school operator in murky land deal

Misgivings over the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land in the Osaka Prefecture city of Toyonaka to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which espouses nationalistic ideology, have only grown since the news first broke.

At a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Feb. 24, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed that his wife, Akie Abe, had stepped down from the post of honorary principal of the operator's Mizhuo-no-kuni Elementary School, which is set to open in April. It's likely the prime minister decided that with the public's attention now focused on the controversial school, he couldn't afford to avoid taking action.

"My wife's acceptance of her appointment as the school's honorary principal is inadvertently causing trouble for the children set to attend the school and their parents," the prime minister said in explaining his wife's resignation. But he failed to make clear what he meant by "trouble."

Furthermore, Abe said he was dismayed when he discovered that Moritomo Gakuen had been seeking donations by calling the yet-unopened school "Abe Shinzo Kinen Shogakko" (Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school), and called it "extremely regrettable." It was as though he was playing victim, indignant that his name had been used without his permission.

The prime minister's wife, Akie, however, previously gave a lecture at a kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen, in which she said, "My husband believes the educational policy here is remarkable." Is it true that the circumstances were such that, as the prime minister said on Feb. 24, his wife was unable to turn down the offer to become the new school's honorary principal, even though she initially declined? And why is it that no action was taken until the case came to light? Questions remain.

Of course, the first thing that must be explained is the murky sale of state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen.

The cost of removing large volumes of trash found underground on the land lot has been cited as the reason for the approximately 800-million-yen discount -- an amount that is said to have been calculated by the Osaka Regional Civil Aviation Bureau at the request of the Kinki Local Finance Bureau.

However, in such transactions, price estimates are commonly left in the hands of land appraisal experts. Even the Ministry of Finance has admitted that there has been no precedent of a government agency directly quoting a price for a land sale like the one in question.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso has maintained that the procedures undertaken by the various parties involved in the case were appropriate, but there is little specific evidence to back up that statement.

The Finance Ministry reported that records on the negotiations between the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and Moritomo Gakuen on the land sale were discarded after the sale was finalized in June 2016. Does the government truly expect the public to be satisfied with such an explanation?

Yasunori Kagoike, chairman of Moritomo Gakuen, has responded to some media interviews regarding the case. It is imperative that Kagoike, as well as Kinki Local Finance Bureau officials and Osaka Regional Civil Aviation Bureau officials involved be summoned to the Diet as witnesses to provide testimony. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party should agree to the opposition parties' requests that the witnesses be summoned to offer a better explanation than has been provided thus far.

Only about half the seats that Mizuho-no-kuni Elementary School wants to fill when it opens in April are filled at this point. The Osaka Prefectural Private School Council, which will determine whether to give the school official approval, has pointed out concerns over the school's financial standing, indicating that as things stand now, the school will have a difficult time being licensed. If we are truly concerned about "causing trouble" -- as Abe has said -- to the children who are planning to attend the school and their parents, there are a host of significant decisions that must be made as soon as possible.

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