print PRINT

POLITICS

Commentary: Can gov’t put end to “Moritomo” scandal?

  • April 15, 2017
  • , Yomiuri , p. 11
  • JMH Translation

By Yomiuri Shimbun Chief Editor Hisashi Oda

 

An incident involving School Corporation “Moritomo Gakuen,” in which a piece of state-owned land was sold to the school operator at a low price, is being treated at the Diet as a major scandal of the Abe administration.

 

The essence of the issue is whether there were reasonable grounds for the sale in which the land in question in Toyonaka City, Osaka Prefecture, was sold last June at a price significantly lower than the publicly appraised value, and whether there were any politicians involved in the deal.

 

The state-owned land was appraised at 956 million yen, but it was sold for 134 million yen, a difference of more than 800 million yen. Why such a difference?

 

Diet members do not usually get involved in transactions of state-owned land. Not only lawmakers but even their secretaries would shy away from the risks attendant upon involvement in such land deals.

 

During the Diet debate on this matter, only then-Moritomo Gakuen President Yasunori Kagoike presented the view that “there seems to have been a political consideration in the land deal.”

 

In his sworn testimony at the session of the House of Councillors Budget Committee held on March 23, Kagoike cited the names of four Upper House lawmakers, all members of the Liberal Democratic Party, whom he claimed he approached for the government’s approval of his school and the land transaction. But his testimony lacked concrete evidence and the four lawmakers denied illegal involvement in the matter.

 

The Finance Ministry has refuted Kagoike’s statements. Former Kinki Local Finance Bureau Director General Yoshiki Takeuchi as an unsworn witness clearly said at the session of the Upper House Budget Committee held on March 24, “No politician or secretary made an inquiry about the matter with the bureau, and we gave no political consideration to the transaction.”

 

Regarding the significantly low price of the land, the Finance Ministry explained that the cost for removing waste material from the soil was subtracted from the appraised value.

 

The Land Ministry emphasized that “it was reasonable to make an estimate on the assumption that waste material existed as deep as 9.9 meters underground.”

 

The government claims that there was no wrongful aspect to the process of discounting the land price. However, the relevant administrative documents had been discarded. Moritomo Gakuen had attempted to proceed with the school construction without removing the waste material.

 

Although some parts of this affair remain in the dark, proving that there was no involvement of lawmakers in the land deal is akin to the devil’s proof – the lack of evidence fails to disprove the allegation. If the truth of this land transaction needs to be pursued further, judicial intervention is indispensable.

 

The opposition camp including the Democratic Party have attempted to introduce irrelevant issues such as the plan for Abe’s wife Akie to become an honorary principal of the school and the school-affiliated kindergarten having preschool children recite the Imperial Rescript on Education of the Meiji Era. The opposition did so because they expected such irrelevant stories could be effective in undermining the image of the Abe administration.

 

In retrospect, it was a remark Abe made on  at the session of the Lower House Budget Committee on Feb. 17 that exacerbated the issue and created political instability.

 

“I and my wife had nothing to do with the school approval or the state-owned land transaction,” said Abe. “If we are later found to have been involved, I will resign as prime minister and from the Diet.”

 

Abe linked the issue to his political career by referring to the possibility of his resignation. He intended to clearly deny his involvement in the affair so as to put an end to the matter. But his remark instead encouraged the opposition and drove them to probe into the possible involvement of Abe’s wife.

 

“I am a public figure but my wife is a private individual,” Abe said at the session of the Upper House Budget Committee held on March 1. The remark had a lasting effect. There are no legal provisions for “public figure.” In its official answer in writing, the government decided that Akie is a “private individual, but she is accompanied by five government officials.

 

The answer explained in a convoluted manner that Akie as a “private individual” assists her husband as the prime minister, a public figure, and government officials as “public figures” accompany Akie as the prime minister’s wife, a “private individual.”  

 

The reason that Akie was put under close scrutiny was because the Kagoike side sent her a letter asking her to help make the contract for the lease of the state-owned land more advantageous to him. One of the government officials accompanying Akie made an inquiry about the matter to the Finance Ministry and replied to Kagoike by fax, saying, “As it stands now, we cannot meet your expectations.”

 

Such an inquiry made by a government official who accompanies Akie could prompt the Finance Ministry officials to read the unspoken feelings and act upon them. At the session of the Upper House Budget Committee held on March 24, the opposition questioned whether Akie exerted her influence on the ministry through the government officials accompanying her.

 

“It was an administrative inquiry, not an improper act of putting pressure on the ministry,” said Abe, totally denying Akie’s involvement.

 

The government made far-fetched excuses that the series of actions by government officials accompanying Akie were not “official duties.”

 

It was later disclosed that those government officials accompanied Akie not only when she gave a lecture at “Moritomo Gakuen” but also when she gave support to the candidate during an election campaign of the House of Councillors, and during her visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and on ski trips. This means that government officials accompanied a private citizen on her private trips. This needs to be corrected, but they are  not the main point of the Moritomo scandal.

 

Besides the fact that the Moritomo scandal has caused political instability, the issue, after all, can be summarized as the allegation that Kagoike wrongfully received a subsidy from the Land Ministry by falsifying the construction cost for the school.

 

After receiving a charge [against Kagoike] of violation of the Act for the Normalization of Subsidies, the special investigative squad of the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office began an investigation into the matter.

 

It remains to be seen whether the investigation will turn out to be “much ado about nothing.” (Slightly Abridged)

  • Ambassador
  • Ukraine
  • OPINION POLLS
  • COVID-19
  • Trending Japan