Japan’s PM Abe and wife snared in a school for scandal, involving dubious land deal and hyper-nationalist kindergarten

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2017, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 March, 2017, 10:47pm

The crisis that has rocked the previously unshakeable administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not the result of bungled economic policies, party in-fighting or any of the other calamities that have brought down Japanese leaders in the past.

Abe is struggling to shake off a scandal involving a kindergarten.

Just a few weeks ago, he was riding high in the polls and making plans to run for an unprecedented third term as head of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party.

So when questions first began to be asked about Moritomo Gakuen, a kindergarten operator in Osaka with what was initially described as a conservative curriculum, the prime minister felt confident to declare that he shared many of the philosophies of the school’s president, Yasunori Kagoike.

It would emerge in swift succession last month that the premier’s wife, Akie Abe, had been named honorary principal of a new school being planned by Kagoike; that the school was being built on land purchased from the government by Moritomo Gakuen for a fraction of its estimated value; and that the operator’s philosophies imposed upon his young pupils were not just conservative, but tended towards far-right pre-war nationalism.

With hindsight, Abe may be regretting that endorsement. Akie Abe, certainly regretted her association with the school, stepping down from her honorary position last month.

The latest senior politician to be sucked into the widening scandal is Tomomi Inada, the defence minister, who on March 8 claimed in a hearing in the Diet that in her previous role as a lawyer she had never provided the operator of the school with legal advice or represented it in court proceedings.

On Tuesday, Inada was obliged to concede that she may have served as legal counsel for Moritomo Gakuen - although she insisted that she has “no memory” of doing so.

Even though Abe and Inada are unashamedly conservative, the philosophies served up by Moritomo Gakuen is a step too far.

Kagoike is the head of the Osaka branch of Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist group that seeks to retain the male branch of the imperial family as Japan’s head of state, and wants the nation to operate a powerful military and that education system that reinforces Japanese values and traditions.

Children are required to recite passages from the Imperial Rescript on Education, which dates from 1890 and was read in all schools until 1945. The rescript calls on “loyal imperial subjects” to follow the emperor’s will. Pupils are also told to honour the Self-Defence Forces and gave out flags to members of the Maritime SDF before ships left Osaka on overseas deployments.

Japanese media have discovered video footage of Moritomo Gakuen pupils singing martial songs at a Shinto shrine. Others show children at a sporting event chanting, “Adults should protect the Senkaku Islands [Diaoyutai islands], Takeshima [the South Korean-controlled islands of Dok-do] and the Northern Territories!”, references to various outposts with disputed sovereignty, claimed by Japan and other nations.

It also emerged that the school had released a statement to the families of potential students, stating that “Some people have Japanese names but they are descended from Chinese and Koreans and have evil ideas.”

Despite schooling kindergartners in views considered extreme, Kagoike and Moritomo Gakuen managed to avoid scrutiny, until a February 9 story in Asahi Shimbun. It revealed that Moritomo Gakuen had purchased a plot of government land in Toyonaka, Osaka prefecture, for its new elementary school for Y134 million (HK$9.06 million) last year, a fraction of the Y956 million (HK$64.65 million) estimated value of the land.

Government officials told local media the 8,770-square-metre plot was sold for a cut price because it was contaminated with industrial waste and needed to be “cleaned up.” But it then emerged that the school operator had received a government grant to pay for the clean up, and Moritomo Gakuen had effectively obtained the land for free.

“I don’t think that the scandal would ever reach [Shinzo Abe’s] door... but the media and the opposition have really jumped on this,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

“This is the biggest political crisis that he has faced in this, his second tenure, and his public support ratings have fallen 6 per cent or 7 per cent in the last month, which is a significant figure.”

The prime minister is “back-peddaling furiously” from his initial support for Moritomo Gakuen, Kingston said, but damage has unquestionably been done.

“Abe’s nationalist agenda was not quite hidden, but it was always in the shadow of Abenomics and economic reforms,” he said. “But now more people have come to understand what he wants to do in terms of revising the constitution and following a deeply nationalistic agenda.”