For over a year, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has battled to draw a line under accusations of cronyism linking him and his wife to an ultra-nationalist school.
The scandal now threatens to engulf Abe’s government after bureaucrats conceded they forged documents in an apparent bid to conceal the couple’s involvement.
The operator of the school, Moritomo Gakuen, runs a kindergarten where three-five-year-old children are taught to stomp their feet to military dirges, bow to pictures of the emperor and pledge to give them themselves to defend the state against foreign enemies.
In 2016, the operator bought state land in Osaka at a knockdown price. A primary school, with a similar right-wing curriculum, was planned on the 8,770sq m plot. Abe’s name was used to solicit donations. His wife, Akie, was to be its honorary principal.
The school had other powerful supporters: Tomomi Inada, the former defence minister, sent a letter thanking the kindergarten for raising the morale of Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF); its children are dispatched to the docks to wave off SDF warships.
Opposition politicians suspect the school won a sweetheart deal. Finance ministry officials sold the state land for 134 milion yen (€1.1 million), 14 per cent of what it was worth. Few believed their explanation that the discount was calculated to pay for the cost of removing onsite waste.
Abe has repeatedly denied any involvement in the sale and said he will quit if anyone can prove otherwise. He and his wife were badgered into helping the kindergarten, he insisted, by its principal, Yasunori Kagoike, who had used his name to raise money, “despite my repeated insistence he not do so”.
Kagoike and his wife, Junko, have since been arrested on fraud charges.
Abe had previously heaped praise on Kagoike, however, saying he had an “admirable passion” for education and that they shared a “similar ideology”. Abe has campaigned to inject patriotism into schools: during his first term as prime minister in 2006 the law was revised to include nurturing “love of country” as an educational goal.
Abe is an adviser to the parliamentary league of Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist lobby group whose goals include building up the nation’s military forces, instilling patriotism in the young and reviving much of Japan’s pre-second World War constitution.
The school scandal deepened on Friday when a finance ministry official at the Osaka bureau that handled the land deal was found dead in an apparent suicide. The head of the National Tax Agency, Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was in charge of overseeing the sale, has also quit.
Some suspect Sagawa ordered bureaucrats to cover up the trail linking the sale to the first couple.
Badgered relentlessly by the opposition, finance ministry officials on Monday finally admitted that official documents had been forged last year. In several cases, references to Akie Abe and other politicians were rewritten or deleted, according to details leaked to the media.
The political damage to the prime minister remains to be seen. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a hefty general election win last autumn. At the very least, his bid to win a third term as LDP this autumn is in doubt. Re-election would have probably secured his place as Japan's longest-serving leader.