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Abe rejected close aides' proposal to apologize over Moritomo favoritism allegations

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, bows in apology over the government's public document handling problems including tampering by the Finance Ministry, at a June 5, 2018, Cabinet meeting on document management. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not lend his ears to a proposal from his close aides in mid-February 2017 to apologize over favoritism allegations regarding the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

This tough posture, exhibited since the earliest days of the allegations involving Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen, has been evident in Abe's responses to opposition party criticism in the Diet over his alleged link to the land deal. The Moritomo land deal has been a major source of trouble for Abe's administration, and political observers suggest the prime minister's attitude has played a role in prolonging the administration's woes.

"The issue wouldn't have become this big if he had explained things in a more humble manner at an earlier stage," one former prime minister commented.

Moritomo received a discount of about 800 million yen when it bought state-owned land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, in 2015 from the Ministry of Finance's Kinki Local Finance Bureau, which would eventually be paid off in installments. Based on sale negotiation records, opposition lawmakers allege that the bureau offered the favorable price because of the influence of Abe's wife Akie, who was once named honorary principal of an elementary school to be built on that land.

Abe has repeatedly denied his wife's involvement in the deal and even told a Diet session on February 17, 2017 -- shortly after he effectively turned down the apology proposal -- that he would quit as prime minister and as a lawmaker if such a connection were found.

A ministry probe later found that Akie's name and the names of other politicians were deleted from negotiation records by bureau officials under the direction of Nobuhisa Sagawa, who headed the ministry's Finance Bureau when the deal started to become an issue in the Diet. The ministry on June 4 punished 20 people including Sagawa over the deletion and discarding of documents linked to the Moritomo case. According to the ministry, Sagawa apparently issued the instructions out of concern over discrepancies between the negotiation records and what he had told the Diet.

The apology proposal surfaced during a meeting in mid-February 2017 of Abe's close aides, including Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita and Takaya Imai, the prime minister's executive secretary. The meeting was organized in preparation for the Feb. 17 session of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives, in which Nobuyuki Fukushima, then a lawmaker of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, was preparing to question the Moritomo land deal.

At the time, the situation surrounding the deal was beginning to attract considerable public attention. Earlier on Feb. 8, Makoto Kimura, a member of the city assembly of Toyonaka, where the discounted land was located, filed a complaint with the Osaka District Court, criticizing the Kinki Local Finance Bureau's failure to disclose the amount it had received for the sale of the land in Toyonaka. Media reports were coming out saying a major discount was made over the sale, and that the first lady was the honorary principal of the school set to be constructed on the plot.

The Diet was becoming tough to maneuver in other ways, too. The ruling coalition led by Abe was facing off with the opposition over the alleged concealment of daily logs of Ground Self-Defense Force members dispatched to South Sudan for a peacekeeping operation. The Moritomo case had already been taken up in a session of the House of Representatives Committee on Financial Affairs on Feb. 15, and the Abe administration needed to set a policy on how to handle the matter.

One aide proposed, "The prime minister could say that he was not involved in the land deal but is sorry for what happened, and that would be the end of it." Other participants did not object, and it was agreed that Imai, Abe's secretary, would deliver the idea to the prime minister.

The prime minister, however, insisted that neither he nor his wife had had anything to do with the transaction, and effectively turned down the apology option. In the lower house budget committee, Fukushima said that Moritomo was raising funds by offering an opportunity to potential contributors to place their names on a memorial plaque at the school, which was to be named "Shinzo Abe Memorial Elementary School."

Abe responded that he had never heard about such an arrangement and asserted, "If my wife or I were found to be involved, I would definitely resign both as prime minister and as a Diet member. I want to make that clear."

In March 16 of the same year, Yasunori Kagoike, then the head of Moritomo Gakuen, told the House of Councillors Budget Committee's opposition members who visited him in Osaka that he had received 1 million yen in donations through the prime minister's wife, Akie. In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, one of Abe's closest aides, told the prime minister, "There is no problem even if the donation was really made." Abe, however, answered, "Akie cannot lie. She told me she would never do that." The prime minister, to this day, maintains a posture of refusing to apologize, and the Moritomo allegations continue to dog his administration.


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