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Opposition continues to grill gov't over Abe's alleged links to cronyism scandals

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks in the Diet on June 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Opposition lawmakers continued to grill the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the favoritism scandals involving two school operators during a House of Councillors Audit Committee session on June 18, accusing the prime minister or his wife of being involved in the scandals.

Kotaro Tatsumi, a legislator of the Japanese Communist Party, presented two documents that are said to have been produced by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism over the heavily discounted sale of state-owned land to the Moritomo Gakuen school corporation. He decried the government for being reluctant to disclose information over the matter.

One of the documents Tatsumi presented to the committee concerned an inquiry made in November 2015 by Saeko Tani, a then government official assigned to aid Abe's wife Akie, with the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau about the possibility of giving preferential treatment to Moritomo Gakuen by lowering rent fees for state property. The document is said to have been created on Nov. 12, 2015, by the land ministry's West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau after it received information from the Finance Ministry's Kinki Local Finance Bureau. The Finance Ministry had responded to Tani's inquiry the same day.

In the document, it is mentioned that Akie Abe served as honorary principal of an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen was planning to build on the state property in question in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture. Tatsumi pointed out that the reference to the first lady is evidence that her presence influenced the Finance Ministry's negotiations with the school operator over the land deal. "Information was shared with the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau on the same day. The document went as far as to refer to Akie Abe as honorary principal," Tatsumi said.

Another document that Tatsumi brought up was one that is believed to have recorded the content of opinion exchanges between the Finance Ministry and the land ministry in May 2018 over whether to disclose records of negotiations with Moritomo Gakuen.

According to the document, a Finance Ministry official stated during a meeting with land ministry officials, "Exchanges between the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and the Financial Bureau would be withheld even if that could lead to a legal battle at the Supreme Court." The official also told land ministry officials, "There could be some merit in releasing exchanges between the Kinki Local Finance Bureau and the West Japan Civil Aviation Bureau because that would bring to light that Moritomo Gakuen officials made outrageous remarks."

However, the Finance Ministry official also said, "Whether to publicly release the negotiation records would depend on the content. We want your ministry to look into whether it is in your best interests to release the records," urging a cautious response by the land ministry.

Regarding the Finance Ministry's in-house investigation report over the doctoring of documents relating to the land deal, the official explained that the prime minister's office was pressing the Ministry of Justice in order to make sure that the release of the Finance Ministry report coincides with the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office's announcement on whether to criminally charge Finance Ministry officials over the document alterations and the land deal.

"What exactly did they want to hide even at the potential cost of going to the Supreme Court?" Tatsumi questioned. In response, Prime Minister Abe just said, "There's no way I can answer that question because the situation is only hypothetical at the moment," suggesting that the authenticity of the document presented to the committee was unclear. Tatsumi, however, pressed ahead by saying, "The government deserves to be suspected that it is refusing to disclose relevant information because the deal was 'a matter concerning Abe.'"

Meanwhile, Toshio Ishigami, a legislator of the Democratic Party for the People, grilled Abe about the cronyism scandal involving Kake Educational Institution, which is headed by Abe's close friend Kotaro Kake.

Ishigami pointed out that the content of a document that was filed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology with the upper house budget committee on June 8 partially matched with the content of an Ehime Prefectural Government document that suggested a February 2015 meeting between Abe and Kake over the establishment of a veterinary school in Ehime.

The Ehime government document states that when Kake met the prime minister on Feb. 25, 2015, the former submitted a paper titled "A new education strategy" over the vet school project, and that the education ministry sought opinions from experts based on that document. An education ministry probe has found that the ministry staff had sent an email to experts in March 2015 with the material in question attached.

"The suspicions that Kake met Abe have further deepened," Ishigami said. However, Abe reiterated his denial of meeting Kake on that day, saying, "We could not confirm the existence of the material in question."

(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department)

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