An ultranationalist school, a suicide and a wife on a quest for the truth

Tokyo Letter: ‘Someone knows who told my husband to commit these acts’

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s name was used to solicit donations for the school. His wife, Akie, was to be its honorary principal. Photograph: Franck Robichon, Pool/Getty

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s name was used to solicit donations for the school. His wife, Akie, was to be its honorary principal. Photograph: Franck Robichon, Pool/Getty

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One evening in March 2018, Masako Akagi returned home to find her husband, Toshio, had killed himself in their apartment. There had been warning signs: Toshio (54) was depressed and had been off work for months.

The morning before he took his own life, he quietly said “thank you” to his wife as she left. “His face was full of despair,” she recalls. “I think he’d been crying.”

Suicides by middle-aged men are not uncommon in Japan but Toshio Akagi’s job put him in the crosshairs of a national scandal, implicating then prime minister Shinzo Abe. As a finance ministry bureaucrat, Akagi was ordered to tamper with official documents relating to the sale of public land at a knockdown price to the operator of an ultranationalist school. Abe’s name was used to solicit donations for the school. His wife, Akie, was to be its honorary principal.

When the scandal broke, videos circulated on television of children (aged three to five) at the private kindergarten stomping tiny feet along to military dirges, bowing deeply to pictures of the emperor and pledging to give themselves “courageously” to defend the state. At public events, the children exhorted watching adults to protect Japanese territory against “foreign threats”.

Most Japanese were astonished to see children being drilled this way. Their grandparents were once taught similar fare, until the education system was secularised after Japan’s ruinous second World War. Abe had previously praised the school’s owner, saying they shared a “similar ideology”. Akie Abe’s name was later scrubbed from the kindergarten’s website.

Shinzo Abe quit last year citing ill health but Masako Akagi is on a lonely quest to uncover the truth. She has sued the government for damages and demanded it release documents and emails she says would prove the cover-up came from the top. Fearful of retribution, she appears at press conferences disguised, holding her husband’s makeshift suicide rope. “I must know what had happened,” she says.

School expansion

The whole affair might have lingered in obscurity had the school owner not decided to expand. Moritomo Gakuen, the operator of the kindergarten, bought public land from the government in Osaka for about 14 per cent of its estimated value. A primary school founded on the same ultranationalist principles was planned. The original name was to have been the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe memorial elementary school.

Opposition politicians suspected a sweetheart deal backed by nationalist politicians sympathetic to the school’s curriculum. Tomomi Inada, the then defence minister, had sent a letter thanking the kindergarten for boosting the morale of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF). Its children were dispatched to the docks to wave off SDF warships.

Under fire, Abe denied any knowledge of the land sale and told parliament in February 2017 that he would quit if anyone proved he or his wife were involved. That was the point, says Akagi, where her husband was called in by Nobuhisa Sagawa, the local bureau chief of the finance ministry, to alter the documents and hide the involvement of Akie Abe, along with other senior officials and politicians.

Tortured with guilt

Akagi says her husband, a diligent and conscientious man, was tortured with guilt at breaking the law. His health deteriorated and he feared the prosecutors and the police would come for him. “He lost his pride as a public servant and despaired,” she says. His suicide letter said he was taking his own life “to take responsibility as someone who knows the truth”.

Last week, Akagi scored a legal win when her lawyer forced the government to disclose the so-called “Akagi file”, 500-odd pages detailing her husband’s dealings with his bosses at the finance ministry. Redactions, however, concealed the names of officials in Tokyo. “Who was giving orders to Mr Sagawa – that’s what we are trying to find out,” she says. “Who was above Mr Sagawa?”

An internal investigation by the finance ministry concluded that Sagawa had ordered the cover-up alone. He and a handful of others were punished with pay-cuts and suspensions but nobody was held criminally responsible. Finance minister Taro Aso has refused to order a third-party investigation. Unless Masako Akagi wins her legal fight, there the matter rests.

“Someone knows who told my husband to commit these acts,” she says. Akagi says she is furious that powerful people, including Aso, continue to serve “without resigning or taking any responsibility” for her husband’s death. “I cannot understand their behaviour at all.”

Rumours persist, meanwhile, that a recovered Abe is planning a political comeback.

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