Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s responses to key questions related to a murky scandal surrounding the dubious sale of state-owned land to Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen leave much to be desired.

At a March 24 session of the Upper House Budget Committee, Abe again denied any involvement by him or his wife, Akie, in the land sale or approval for an elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen planned to open on the site.

The focus of the session was on a fax sent to Yasunori Kagoike, chief of the educational institution, from an aide assigned to the first lady.

According to Kagoike’s testimony before the Diet on March 23, he left a voice message on Akie’s mobile phone asking for her help in smoothing the way for the land transaction.

Later, the aide sent a fax to Kagoike that contained the following passages.

“We made an inquiry with the Finance Ministry and received a response from the head of the ministry’s section that handles state-owned property.”

And then: “A report about this matter has already been submitted to Akie.”

The fax also included a passage referring to the government budget formulation process: “As for a plan to budget for temporary government lending to cover the cost (of dealing with polluted soil) ... talks are being held to make the money appropriated from the fiscal 2016 budget.”

Abe claims that the fax was simply a reply to Kagoike’s inquiry addressed to the aide assigned to Akie, who was only briefed on the matter.

But it is hard to imagine that a central government employee assisting the first lady conveyed a request from a private educational corporation to a government organization without her approval.

Referring to the action taken by the aide, Abe said it was a pure inquiry that was “administrative” in nature.

He said there was no “request, political influencing or undue pressure” involved.

But an inquiry from a government official assigned to the prime minister’s wife could have political influence on a government organization.

We wonder what Abe and his wife think about the influence their positions have and its possible effects on people and organizations around them.

The scandal has also cast additional doubt on the credibility of Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.

Inada had previously said her husband, a lawyer, was not involved in the land sale in any way.

After Kagoike’s testimony, however, Inada acknowledged that her husband was present at a January 2016 meeting between Kagoike and government officials handling the matter.

But Inada asserted the meeting was not to do with the land sale, but about refunding the cost of dealing with polluted soil in the plot leased to Kagoike’s organization, which paid for the work.

Responding to Kagoike’s sworn testimony before the Diet, Akie posted a statement on her Facebook page saying she remembers receiving brief messages from him several times. But “I have heard nothing” about the land transaction, she wrote.

But she cannot claim to have fulfilled her responsibility as the first lady, a public figure, to answer the allegations made against her by just posting a statement on the Facebook that only offers her side of the story.

As a sworn witness, Kagoike could be charged with perjury if he made false statements. Akie should also answer questions about her actions related to the scandal at the Diet.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 25