TOKYO, Japan—A right-wing elementary school, espousing the nationalist philosophy of the Shinto cult and lobby Nippon Kaigi and supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, was supposed to have a glorious opening a few days from now.
But in an unexpected turn of events, the school, which was to be named after Shinzo Abe, may result in his political funeral.
What started as a small scandal only reported locally has in a very short tim, turned into a colossal headache for everyone involved.
Here’s how it happened.
A private school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, has run Tsukamoto Kindergarten in Osaka since 1950; the school currently teaches its children “an alternative history” of World War II, promotes Emperor worship, extreme patriotism and pre-war education.
Abe and his wife expressed support for the school.
For years, the head of the school, Yasunori Kagoike, had wanted to open a large elementary school in the area but couldn’t find a good deal on land—even as he raised funds in the interim.
The school ostensibly was to be named “Abe Shinzo Memorial Elementary” and, starting in March 2014, Moritomo Gakuen briefly collected donations under that school name. Akie, Abe’s wife, even agreed to be the honorary principal, but at some point in time asked for the school to be opened with a different name.
On February 9, the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest newspaper, with a relationship to Prime Minister Abe rather like the not-so-friendly relations President Donald Trump and the New York Times, revealed that the school had obtained the land from the Japanese government under dubious circumstances.
It then became clear that the school had bought the land, valued at over $8 million, for almost a tenth of its real value.
By any account, that’s quite a steep discount—even if the property had been devalued because of trash on the premises (as Mr. Kagoike claims).
It’s not clear how the Ministry of Finance, which was in charge of the land, determined the depth of the discount, because critical records have gone missing or been deliberately discarded.
What we do know is that the 8,770 square meters of land located in Noda-cho Toyonaka City Osaka was valued at 965 million yen ($8.7 million) by a real estate appraiser. However, according to Asahi Shimbun’s article on February 9, Moritomo Gakuen bought the land in June of 2016 for 134 million yen ($1.2 million), a fraction of the appropriate price.
As the school owner’s ties to the Abe administration have come to light, they have generated a lot of speculation that the prime minister or members of the Abe cabinet intervened on behalf of the school in order to seal the deal. It has also focused attention on the imperialist educational curriculum of the school, which Abe supports, and the racist comments of its administrators.
Those are rather more problematic. Even if the school scandal does fade away, the question will remain—should a prime minister who supports a school promoting racism really be the front man bidding for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Japan?
That is no small thing. A country might fail in its bid for such a distinction for many reasons. But to fail on account of racism? That’s not acceptable.
One thing that connects Prime Minister Abe and Kagoike is that they are, or were, members of the aforementioned religious cult Nippon Kaigi.
According to Mainichi Shimbun Kagoike was the Osaka branch leader of Nippon Kaigi until his departure from the group in January 2011, based on a statement on the group in March 2017.
It is unclear if Kagoike really has cut ties with the group since he was still wearing his Nippon Kaigi badge at a press conference on March 10 this year.
Shinzo Abe is also a member, as are more than a dozen ministers in his cabinet.
The group wants to rebuild the military, claims that Japan’s goal in World War II was to “liberate” Asia from western colonialism, and that Japan must free itself from the democratic constitution created after World War II and notions of “human rights.”
The elementary school was going to be Japan’s first and only Shinto elementary school, which would “respect Japanese propriety and nurture patriotism and national pride.”
According to the weekly magazine Bunshun, Akie Abe had visited the Tsukamoto Kindergarten, run by Moritomo Gakuen, three times in the past and had been in her own words “deeply inspired” by the educational principles of the institution which included the recitation of the “Imperial Rescript on Education” issued in 1890.
Akie Abie also admired the students’ participation in Self-Defense Force related events and their practice of worshipping at Ise Shrine.
Here, at last, would be a place where children could learn “alternative history” and build a bright shining future for Imperial Japan.
Of course, the school has had some issues—such as passing out flyers with ethnic slurs towards Koreans and Chinese and ordering children to cheer Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It seems odd that Akie Abe would support such a nationalistic school, when she is remarkably liberal in other areas like LGBT rights and a need for Japan to integrate marijuana into society.
Bunshun writes that her newfound Shinto spiritualism might explain the attraction of the school for her.
Supposedly, Ms. Abe is actively deepening her relations with spiritual advisors and Shinto communities while she visits Shinto shrines across the country speaking out and making some strange proclamations like “(my husband) was destined to be prime minister.” She says, “Fate is God given.” And she also says, yes, “Marijuana is a necessity to experience the traditional Japanese way of Shinto. Bringing Japan back means bringing back its pot culture.”
Okay. If her overall goal is to “bring back the good old Japan,” her activities do align up to a slightly confusing point with her husband’s views.
So the kindergarten must have seemed like another great way to advocate for her ideal Japan, until the word got out about the shady way the land had been purchased.
And since then other problems have emerged.
On March 23, Kagoike said in sworn testimony before the National Diet that he had received a one million yen donation directly in cash from Ms. Abe with the words “from Shinzo Abe” on the envelope in September of 2015.
This happened during Akie’s visit to the kindergarten where she gave a speech. She ordered her aide to leave the room before doing it, he claims.
Prime Minister Abe has vehemently denied allegations about such donations and furthermore any relation suggested between himself or his wife and the discounted real estate the school received. He went as far as to claim that he would “step down as prime minister and as a Diet member if such facts existed”.
The whole scandal seems to have shaken him badly and the ostensible glow from his post, “I met Trump and he liked me,” has faded away completely.
It’s not just Abe’s judgement that’s at issue. He may have broken the law.
The real estate donation, and the lack of documentation for it, could be a violation of Japan’s political funds laws.
If Prime Minister Abe exerted influence on the Ministry of Finance to lower the estimated price of the land, he could be guilty of violating Japan’s Laws Prohibiting Mediation Remuneration.
In simpler terms, it’s illegal for a public official to use his or her power to benefit a third party for a reward. Bur if there was any reward for Abe in the deal, it’s highly unlikely that it was monetary but rather “spiritual.” Such is his sympathy with the school’s educational philosophy.
After testifying at the Japanese Parliament, Kagoike held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan. Kagoike distributed to the press a fax from Akie Abe’s secretary to him dated November 17, 2015, 17:04 hours, which seems to demonstrate that she was lobbying on his behalf to have the Ministry of Finance lower the price of the land and give him a better deal on the site of his future school.
Did she also speak to her husband about it? No one is sure.
When pressed by a reporter as to whether he believed that Prime Minister Abe had directly intervened on his behalf in the land deal, Kagoike minced his words: “I believe that people around him may have taken it upon themselves to do it…possibly [several] bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance.”
The word he used to explain the shady circumstances, sontaku, is difficult to translate directly, but it’s about reading the unspoken feelings of another and acting upon them.
The mainstream Japanese media is surprisingly uninterested in the details of why the land was discounted and has been focusing on tangential issues—such as Abe’s handpicked Minister of Defense, Tomomi Inada, lying about her connections to Kagoike.
The reluctance of the major Japanese media to focus on the land discount is perhaps indicative of another issue.
Takashi Uesugi, one of Japan’s best known independent investigative journalists, summarizes the problem eloquently.
“Most major Japanese media firms also have their headquarters on land bought from the government—with the help of the Ministry of Finance—at steep discounts. Looking too deeply into the Moritomo Gakuen problem would be opening a Pandora’s box.”
At present Kagoike has withdrawn his application to open the school. The land will return back to the government. But maybe if he’s lucky, when the heat dies down, he’ll get to open it somewhere else.
As for Prime Minister Abe—yet another scandal involving a private school operator with ties to him and dubious government land dealings has emerged—this time in Okayama Prefecture.
Abe really seems to have problems with education.
Who can forget that Abe’s previous handpicked minister of education had strange ties to the yakuza and a chain of sexual massage parlors, some with school girl themes?
Perhaps it’s time for Abe to step down, chill out, get high with his wife and enjoy Japan’s traditional pot culture, commingling with the gods. That would be good for him and probably good for Japan.