TOKYO -- The head of a school operator with strongly nationalistic views presented new evidence in parliamentary testimony Thursday alleging that an aide to the prime minister's wife had contacted the Finance Ministry over land that became the subject of an apparent sweetheart deal.
First lady Akie Abe was to become honorary principal of Moritomo Gakuen's new elementary school in an Osaka suburb. It then came to light that the organization had purchased government land for the school at around one-tenth of market value. Yasunori Kagoike, who heads Moritomo Gakuen, was called to testify under oath Thursday in the Diet.
Kagoike produced faxes that he said he had received from Saeko Tani, an aide of Akie Abe, claiming them as evidence that Akie's staff had contacted the Finance Ministry regarding the land. If true, this could serve as evidence that the first lady and those around her tried to help Kagoike with the land.
"Is your understanding that Mrs. Abe passed on your request to a staffer, who then responded to you?" asked Yukio Edano of the leading opposition Democratic Party. Kagoike said yes.
"That is hard to believe at face value," Edano responded. "That is a very serious statement, which completely contradicts what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said."
Moritomo Gakuen later purchased the plot for 134 million yen ($1.2 million at current rates), after roughly 800 million yen had been deducted, ostensibly for the cost of cleaning up waste buried at the site.
"I was surprised by the unexpectedly large reduction in price," said Kagoike, who denied knowledge of how the final figure was reached.
The government has defended the land sale. But it acknowledged that there was no precedent for the type of deal that Moritomo Gakuen received, which allowed the school operator to switch from a lease to a purchase agreement, with the option of paying in installments over 10 years. Also unusual was the fact that the government did not disclose the value of the sale, at Moritomo Gakuen's request.
National Tax Agency Commissioner Hidenori Sakota, who headed the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau at the time of the negotiations, will attend an upper house budget committee meeting Friday.
"I do believe that there was political involvement," Kagoike said Thursday, departing from past comments that no national lawmakers were involved in Moritomo Gakuen's purchase of government land.
Envelopes full of cash
In his testimony to the Diet, Kagoike also described in detail his allegation that he received 1 million yen from Akie Abe on Sept. 5, 2015, when she visited a kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen to give a speech.
"She told her aide to leave us," he said. "And when we were alone, she handed me an envelope with 1 million yen in it, saying, 'Please, this is from Shinzo Abe.'" Kagoike alleged that Akie Abe then told him over the phone to keep quiet about the "donation."
Akie Abe categorically denied these claims on her Facebook page later Thursday.
Kagoike was steadfast in his testimony. "Since this was a matter of honor to us, I remember it quite vividly," he said. The educator said he also handed Akie Abe an envelope containing 100,000 yen to thank her for her speech.
But little evidence supports these claims. When a Diet member asked him to provide physical evidence, Kagoike said he no longer had the envelope that contained the 1 million yen. The school official explained he also did not send her a thank-you note, "since Ms. Akie wanted it to be an anonymous contribution."
Kagoike did say that his wife and Akie Abe had been in close contact since the scandal erupted, exchanging 22 emails in February and 15 or 16 in March. In one alleged message from February, Akie Abe apparently acknowledges the Kagoikes' predicament but asks for their consideration of the difficult situation faced by the prime minister as well. Kagoike said it seemed like he was being told to "keep quiet."
In addition to upper house member Yoshitada Konoike, who was already implicated in the scandal, Kagoike claimed involvement by upper house member Takuji Yanagimoto and Issei Kitagawa, a former vice minister for land and transport no longer serving in parliament. He apparently asked them to put in a word for Moritomo Gakuen with the local finance bureau.
Yanagimoto acknowledged that his secretary called the bureau once or twice after a phone call from Kagoike in May 2015 and relayed the response to Kagoike. But "we haven't had any contact since then," Yanagimoto stressed. "Neither I nor my secretaries have met Kagoike in person."
"I have never met Kagoike or received requests from him," Kitagawa told reporters.
Kagoike also hinted at political involvement in the approval process of Moritomo Gakuen's new school.
In addition, Kagoike alleged that he discussed the land deal with the lawyer husband of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. "I asked him for advice regarding the land in January 2016," he said. Kagoike also claimed that Inada herself once spoke as a lawyer on the matter at her husband's office.
Inada said Thursday she was looking into the claim. "Based on my memory, I have not met Mr. Kagoike in the last 10 years," she said.