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Abe scandals

School scandal cover-up admission energizes Abe's opponents

Finance Ministry official says Moritomo Gakuen was told to lie about land sale

Financial Bureau chief Mitsuru Ota, center, appears in front of a Diet committee on April 9. (Photo by Uichiro Kasai)

TOKYO -- A Japanese Finance Ministry official admitted Monday that nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen was instructed to provide false explanations for a deeply discounted land sale, igniting further speculation over the role of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife in the 2016 deal.

"We are now more suspicious that the discount was made in consideration of the Abes," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, head of Diet affairs for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, told reporters Monday. Akie Abe, the prime minister's wife, was appointed an honorary principal of the elementary school to be built on the land.

The comments Monday from Mitsuru Ota, chief of the ministry's Financial Bureau, also were cited by others as showing that the ministry knew of the dubious aspects of the sale and was actively involved.

The Japanese government agreed in 2016 to sell a plot in Osaka Prefecture valued at 956 million yen ($8.93 million at current rates) for just 134 million yen to Moritomo Gakuen. The steep discount ostensibly was intended to cover the cost of waste disposal at the site shouldered by Moritomo.

A Financial Bureau staffer called Moritomo's lawyer around Feb. 20, 2017, and urged the school operator to claim the disposal process took a lot of money and "thousands of trucks," Ota told a Diet upper house committee. Opposition parties at that time had noted Moritomo would need to move over 4,000 truckloads of waste to justify the roughly 800 million yen discount.

"I am very ashamed. I am very sorry," Ota said repeatedly. The land sale and instructions to Moritomo Gakuen occurred before Ota became chief of the Financial Bureau.

His statement sparked commotion among opposition lawmakers at the meeting. Even members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party seemed shocked by the ministry's actions. One legislator banged on her desk, while another loudly called Ota "an idiot."

Ota also said someone from his office told a staffer at the Kinki Local Financial Bureau, which oversaw the land sale, to urge Moritomo to stick to the story. But neither the Kinki bureau nor Moritomo's lawyer agreed.

Ota suggested that former National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa bore some fault. Sagawa, who led the Financial Bureau at the time, "spoke to a Diet committee without checking the facts" and "made comments that could be taken the wrong way," he said.

Some suspect a comment by the prime minister pressured Financial Bureau staffers to ensure they had a plausible reason for the discount. "If I or my wife end up being involved, I will quit as prime minister and a lawmaker," Abe had said on Feb. 17, 2017.

At a hearing last month, Sagawa said he lacked the power to manipulate land appraisals. But the Board of Audit of Japan in November found insufficient evidence to support the estimated waste disposal costs. Saeko Tani, then an aide to Akie Abe, was also found to have relayed questions from Moritomo to the Finance Ministry and sent the responses via fax.

The Osaka prosecutors office has agreed to investigate the case in response to complaints of possible government misconduct. The Financial Bureau's apparent attempt to coordinate its story with Moritomo likely was uncovered as part of this process.

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