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Politics

Akie Abe faces calls from opposition to provide answers about school scandal

Defensive ruling party adamantly opposes the idea

Moritomo Gakuen head Yasunori Kagoike addresses Diet members on Thursday.

TOKYO -- The political opposition in Japan is calling on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife to speak to the Diet, after Moritomo Gakuen chief Yasunori Kagoike claimed Thursday that the first lady tried to help him secure land for his new school.

Renho, president of the leading opposition Democratic Party, said later that day she will seek testimony from Akie Abe. "We now know there may have been political favors," Renho said. "Mr. Kagoike presented just one side of the story, and we need both to determine the truth."

Kagoike on Thursday discussed a fax sent from an aide for Akie Abe -- a response to his requests for an extension on a land lease that nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen signed with the Finance Ministry's local bureau in 2015.

The aide said she had contacted the Finance Ministry regarding the issue. "We cannot meet your requests, but we will continue to monitor the situation," she wrote in the fax. "Ms. Akie has been notified about this as well."

The content of the fax, which appears to contradict previous statements by the prime minister, triggered an angry response from opposition lawmakers. Abe had promised to step down if he or his wife were connected to backroom deals with Moritomo Gakuen, the Japanese Communist Party's Akira Koike said.

"If the fax is real, this is a serious problem that needs thorough investigation," Koike said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga disclosed the text of the fax in a news conference. When asked whether contacting the Finance Ministry qualifies as involvement in a later sale of the plot to Moritomo Gakuen, he replied, "you can clearly see that she did not meet his requests."

The hearing Thursday provided some closure, said Wataru Takeshita, who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Diet Affairs Committee. "No new issues came up at all," he said, denying the possibility of testimony by Abe's wife.

Akie Abe, on her Facebook page that day, denied Kagoike's claims that she gave him a donation or pulled strings to extend the lease.

"We have seen no proof" of Kagoike's testimony, said Hakubun Shimomura, the LDP's acting secretary-general.

The LDP hopes to uncover inconsistencies in Kagoike's testimony by questioning others familiar with the matter. National Tax Agency Commissioner Hidenori Sakota, who led the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau while Moritomo Gakuen was negotiating the land deal, will be called for questioning at an upper house budgetary meeting Friday.

Opposition parties are preparing for a long-term battle, with plans to target the ruling coalition for as long as possible.

"It'll be difficult to argue that Ms. Akie had nothing to do with the incident," said an LDP official worried about the impact on approval ratings. The scandal also could derail Diet discussion on key security legislation. It is unclear whether the government can regain its footing.

(Nikkei)

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