Burgeoning Moritomo Gakuen Scandal Threatens PM Abe’s Future
Recent developments surrounding a scandal regarding the Japanese government’s handling of documents relating to a land sale to an ultra-nationalist educational institution threaten to bring down the current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
On Apr. 14, 2018, around 50,000 demonstrators rallied outside of the National Diet Building in Tokyo, with many calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abe over the deepening scandal, according to protest organizers.
On Feb. 9, 2017, Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based nationalist educational institution operator, acquired land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, in June 2016 for about one-tenth of the market price for comparable neighboring land.
In the ensuing political firestorm, other revelations related to Moritomo Gakuen and the controversial land deal came to light, including the fact that Akie Abe, the Prime Minister’s wife, was an honorary principal of one of the Moritomo-operated schools; the ultranationalist rhetoric used in the curriculum; the lobbying of senior ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and possible defrauding of the government by Moritomo Gakuen head Yasunori Kagoike; and an apparent cover-up by the Finance Ministry, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.
On Mar. 23, 2017, Kagoike testified under oath in front of the Diet’s upper house budget committee, claiming that he had received a donation of 1 million yen (9,000 USD) from Akie Abe on behalf of the Prime Minister. He also stated that “political involvement probably took place regarding the acquisition of state-owned land.” Prime Minister Abe, in statements prior to Kagoike’s testimony, categorically denied any involvement in the scandal by him or his wife and offered to resign if any such evidence to the contrary was discovered; Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga took to the press after Kagoike’s testimony to repeat the denial of any involvement by the Prime Minister or his wife in the land deal.
As approval ratings for Abe’s government plunged in mid-2017 in response to the controversial land deal and several other scandals, the Prime Minister reshuffled his Cabinet on Aug. 3, most notably bringing in certain LDP politicians outside of his faction to present a unified front and quell any potential challenges by Party hopefuls to succeed him. In the Oct. 22 snap election for the Diet’s lower house, Abe led his ruling coalition to maintain its supermajority, a feat made easier by the lack of a unified opposition to credibly challenge him.
However, the Moritomo Gakuen scandal continued to dog him in the new year. Lawmakers were told in Feb. 2018 that the Finance Ministry had kept the land sale documents — contradicting what Nobuhisa Sagawa, the former official in charge of the documents, told the Diet in 2017. A Finance Ministry official who was part of the department that handled the land sale was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Kobe home on Mar. 7 amid allegations that the Finance Ministry had altered documents; the family later claimed that the official had complained that his “common sense had been destroyed” prior to taking his life.
Sagawa, who was appointed to head the National Tax Agency in July 2017, resigned on Mar. 9, 2018, to take responsibility for sowing “confusion.” The Finance Ministry confirmed on Mar. 12 that 14 official documents submitted to the Diet relating to the land deal were indeed altered to remove all references to Akie Abe. Sagawa ultimately gave sworn testimony to the Diet on Mar. 27, categorically denying any involvement by the Prime Minister, his wife, or any top officials in the scandal and claiming that the document falsification “was never reported to the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s something that was conducted internally” by the relevant bureau of the Finance Ministry. The ex-tax chief, citing an ongoing investigation into his activities, declined to answer many lawmakers’ questions, which drew audible groans from lawmakers several times over the course of the hearings.
As recent public opinion noticeably turns against the current administration of Prime Minister Abe, with several local governments officially expressing concern over the Abe administration’s handling of the scandal and large protests in Tokyo, the full breadth and depth of the scandal has yet to be fully revealed. If the Prime Minister did not order the falsification of documents, then who did? What was the role of the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso? How badly will voters punish the LDP in upcoming local elections, if at all? And can Abe secure re-election in the election for LDP President come September — or will he be edged out by an internal challenger, thus ending his second and impressively long-lived tenure as Prime Minister of Japan?