Kindergarten Scandal Dogs Abe Ahead of Party Meeting

  • Abe grilled over wife’s links to school, plus land deal
  • Support falls 6 points in Nikkei poll after Trump boost

Days before he takes another step toward becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, Shinzo Abe is confronting a scandal involving his wife and a nationalist kindergarten.

After four years in office, members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party are set this weekend to rubber stamp a rule change to let him serve a third consecutive term as party leader -- potentially stretching his total time in office to 10 years.

Shinzo Abe

Photographer: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Abe’s popularity has generally remained solid. Polls have shed little light on the reasons for his support, but unemployment has fallen during his administration -- to its lowest rate since the mid-1990s -- and the main opposition Democratic Party has struggled to regroup after its 2012 election defeat.

Still, his moment of triumph this weekend risks being tarnished by the scandal surrounding Moritomo Gakuen, an educational foundation that runs a kindergarten in Osaka known for espousing elements of the prewar nationalist curriculum, as well as for its explicit backing of Abe.

There are questions over how the group purchased state-owned land for what the opposition has said is a fraction of its assessed value, as part of a plan to expand its operations by opening an elementary school.

Waste Site

No evidence has emerged to tie Abe or his wife Akie -- who had been set to act as the school’s honorary principal -- with the land deal, and the foundation’s head, Yasunori Kagoike, has said he did not lobby politicians over the price. Kagoike also told the Sankei newspaper that waste had been found on the site.

Abe has sought to distance himself from the issue, and said he’d resign if any link emerges between himself or Akie and the land deal. On Thursday, he offered to cooperate with any inquiry. Opposition lawmaker Taro Yamamoto has called for Akie to be summoned to parliament to give evidence.

The issue is dominating parliamentary debate and creating front-page headlines. A Nikkei newspaper survey published Monday showed Abe’s support had slipped six percentage points to 60 percent, taking the gloss off a bump in his rating after a February summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Even so, political analyst Steven Reed said that Abe "has gotten very good at dealing with scandals."

China Reacts

"The key is to fire people quickly and to make sure no lies are told," said Reed, a professor of political science at Chuo University in Tokyo who is writing a book on political corruption. "But he can’t fire his wife and the opposition is doing a good job of keeping this in the news."

China’s state media has also covered the furor, which comes amid broader tensions between the countries over territory and Abe’s efforts to expand the role of Japan’s military. “Where there is smoke, there is fire,” the Xinhua news agency said in a report Thursday.

The Tsukamoto Kindergarten is known for making children bow to portraits of the emperor and recite a 19th century imperial decree on education -- practices dropped elsewhere after Japan’s World War II defeat. Last month, the kindergarten apologized for using expressions that "could cause misunderstanding among foreigners." Kyodo news agency reported that the principal had been questioned over alleged slurs against Koreans and Chinese.

Tsukamoto Kindergarten in Osaka.

Photographer: Kyodo News via Getty Images

While Akie has withdrawn from her planned role, Abe continues to be grilled in parliament over her links to the organization. A video aired by Fuji TV this week showed Akie wiping away tears during a visit to the kindergarten after children chanted a message thanking her for "devoting herself to looking after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who works on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people."

"I am a public figure, but my wife is a private person," Abe told parliament this week. "I find it extremely unpleasant that she’s being treated like a criminal."

Akie told Bloomberg in an interview last year that she felt Japan had lost some of its identity by adopting Western culture.

Separately, LDP lawmaker and former minister Yoshitada Konoike told reporters he received donations from the organization, but had refused a request to help out with the land deal, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Wednesday.

Michael Cucek, an adjunct fellow at Temple University’s Japan campus, said in a YouTube broadcast that the financial dealings of the foundation could damage Abe more than the curriculum at the kindergarten.

The LDP convention "was supposed to be his coronation ceremony but, boom, we have a scandal like he’s never had before," he said.

— With assistance by Takashi Hirokawa

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