PARLIAMENTARIANS SHOULD NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF INTERNATIONAL SITUATION
It looks as if the Japanese media today is only interested in covering news about Moritomo Gakuen, the Osaka school operator who has caused the state-owned land scandal that has embroiled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife.
Six years ago, I happened to be invited to speak to the parents at one of Moritomo’s kindergartens about family education, food, parent-child dialogue, as well as Japanese history and social changes in post-war Japan.
The testimony given at the Diet on March 24 by Yasunori Kagoike, the head director of Moritomo, only served to confuse the issue. With the fiscal 2017 budget and related bills having been enacted on March 27, our parliamentarians are apparently more than prepared to pursue the matter further, putting aside a host of more critical concerns.
With the world around us changing so dramatically, can Japan afford to waste time on such a scandal trivial in comparison?
President Donald Trump has announced his 2018 budget blueprint which includes a US$54 billion increase in military expenditures, but his administration is still precariously short of staff, unable to fill dozens of vacancies at key government agencies.
Failing to persuade enough members of his own party to join him, the president who prides himself on his powers of negotiation was forced to back down from scrapping Obamacare on March 24.
Amid growing concern over a decline in the leadership of the Trump administration, North Korea warned that it would take “all necessary actions, including a preemptive strike” in response to the US-South Korea joint military exercises begun on March 1, said to be the “largest-ever.”
When it launched four ballistic missiles simultaneously into the Sea of Japan on March 6, North Korea claimed the launch was an exercise aimed at American bases in Japan. That makes Japan Pyongyang’s immediate target. What in the world is our parliament doing, wasting its precious time on a land sale scandal while neglecting the imminent threat from North Korea?
On a Fuji TV program on March 26, Yuichiro Tamaki of the Democratic Party (DP) demanded that Mrs. Shinzo Abe be summoned to the Diet for questioning in connection with the scandal. I was surprised by Tamaki’s remarks. After all, he is a promising representative of Japan’s leading opposition party, not a member of some minority opposition party such as the Japan Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party. The real question in the Moritomo issue boils down to three points: 1) Was public land sold off to Moritomo through lawful procedures? 2) Was the huge discount rate—86% of the listed price (￥956 million, or about US$8.7 million)—justifiable? 3) Was there any collusion with politicians? These questions have nothing to do with Mrs. Abe.
Let’s first consider the substantial discount. Unfortunately, documents relating to the transaction have since been disposed of, according to the Kinki Regional Finance Bureau of the Ministry of Finance. The failure on the part of the regional finance bureau to retain pertinent documents until the project was consummated can be termed a government error, although not illegal. The government and the opposition parties should take immediate action to establish new rules aimed at preserving government documents.
No Collusion with Politicians
Simultaneously, one should note the points raised by Yasuhiro Hanashi, a Lower House member of the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) during his questioning of Kagoike at the Diet. Hanashi pointed out that three plots of state-owned land around the Itami International Airport in Osaka were sold off to three entities: Moritomo Gakuen; Tonoyaka City which has since turned the land into a public park; and a school meal supply center. In the case of the supply center plot, a huge amount of concrete chips containing hazardous asbestos was found during construction, necessitating an appropriation of approximately ￥1.4 billion (some US$12.7 million) for waste disposal. As for the adjacent park bought by Toyonaka City, it was originally priced at ￥14.02 billion (US$12.75 million) and was sold for just ￥20 million (US$182,000), after the financial authorities accepted ￥14 billion as waste disposal costs. In both cases, the authorities recognized waste disposal fees in the range of ￥13 billion.
In Moritomo’s case, the ￥956 million (US$8.69 million) plot was sold for ￥130 million (US$1.18 million) after deducting ￥826 million (US$7.7 million), which the authorities recognized as necessary expenditures to dispose of debris and waste.
As mentioned earlier, the documents that could ascertain the fairness of this process have been discarded. Even so, the Moritomo case can easily be compared with the park and the meal supply center projects. Incidentally, state-owned lands have often been sold to private corporations, such as the Asahi Shimbun Company, at ridiculously low prices for reasons other than waste disposal, such as the public good.
Next, was there any collusion with politicians? As regards the discount on the purchase price, Kagoike stated during his testimony: “There was no collusion with politicians” (answering Hanashi’s question). He also said: “The rent on the (state-owned) land lease (for his school) remained high. If there had been any collusion with politicians, I would have expected it to have been reduced. Therefore, I do not think there was any collusion” (answering Shoji Nishida, an Upper House member of the LDP).
During a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan that followed his testimony at the Diet, which I will refer to later, Kagoike also said: “I don’t think there was any direct influence from Prime Minister Abe.”
Meanwhile, Kagoike speculated that the financial authorities may have “read the mind of Mrs. Abe” in brokering a favorable deal. Mrs. Abe was at the time Moritomo’s honorary president. However, in response to Moritomo’s request for assistance as regards the land purchase, one of her secretaries replied in a facsimile to Kagoike wife: “Mrs. Abe cannot comply with your wish.” Doesn’t her refusal to cooperate prove that she did not exert any influence on bureaucrats or politicians?
David McNeill of The Economist asked Kagoike: “You say you received money from Prime Minister Abe but he and his wife say that you didn’t. Can you tell everyone why you think I should believe you and not them?” Kagoike had this to say:
“It was not just myself who was involved in this receiving of the one million yen. I told my employees immediately after receiving it so that there are others who are aware of it. “
Meanwhile, in an exchange of emails with Kagoike’s wife made public recently, Mrs. Abe politely but repeatedly denied Kagoike’s assertions that in September 2015 she gave him ￥1 million (US$9,090) in cash as ‘a donation’ from her husband while receiving a ￥100,000 (US$909) honorarium for a lecture she gave at a Moritomo kindergarten. “I don’t remember having given or received money from Moritomo,” she wrote. “If I really did, please refresh my memory.” But Mrs. Kagoike has failed to comply.
A reporter from Nico Nico News, an Internet TV station, asked Kagoike about “a statement on your website that falsely stated that Emperor Akihito had visited your Tsukamoto Kindergarten.” Queried about the false article on the kindergarten’s website at the Diet earlier in the day, Kagoike answered he had not been aware of it. Pressed to reply who posted the article, alongside a photo showing the emperor visiting elsewhere in Japan, Kagoike said:
“…in a book, or maybe in a magazine, an editor made a mistake and wrote that the emperor visited our kindergarten. This was something that came to light at the Diet…un-amended on our homepage. I am unable to check everything on our homepage…”
Whether or not the emperor actually visited the kindergarten is extremely pertinent. That is why the reporter pressed Kagoike further to answer who it was that posted the false information on the website. His reply:
“When it comes to this question, I think it was probably one of my employees, or somebody at the company which installed the website on our behalf…”
His answer is far from acceptable. I seriously wonder why reporters from the major Japanese media outlets have failed to follow up on this.
There was one section of the aforementioned Fuji TV program that caught my attention in particular. Asked if Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a lower house member of his party, had attempted to break her way into Morimoto’s premises earlier this year, as charged by Kagoike’s wife, Tamaki said: “Our party has already denied it. I ask that you accurately report what happened.”
Tamaki describes as untrue the highly disquieting information concerning Tsujimoto provided by the Kagoike side. If so, why can’t he view as credible the denial on the part of the prime minister and his wife that no payment was made or received? His position is inconsistent.
The only real question remaining in the Moritomo scandal, which Kagoike refused to answer during his Diet testimony for fear of incriminating himself, involves the three different cost estimates he submitted to the authorities for the same school project.
In the meantime, our parliamentarians should never fail to pay close attention to what is evolving in China and on the Korean Peninsula. They have the responsibility to protect our citizens’ lives and our air, lands, and seas. Every one of them should strictly bear this in mind.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 748 in the April 6, 2017 edition of The Weekly Shincho)