Under fire from opposition parties in the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has turned his criticism toward The Asahi Shimbun over its coverage of the land scandal involving school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka.

Abe disputed an article that appeared on May 9, 2017, that mentioned the private elementary school Moritomo Gakuen was planning to build on state-owned land, which it purchased at a huge discount, would be named after the prime minister.

Both Abe and his wife, Akie, who served as an honorary principal of the planned school, have become ensnared in the scandal.

The Asahi story was based on an interview with Yasunori Kagoike, the former head of Moritomo Gakuen, who is currently in detainment after being indicted on charges of defrauding local governments out of subsidies.

"The Asahi Shimbun reported as though it was a fact that Kagoike had submitted an application with the school name of 'Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school,' " the prime minister said on Feb. 5 at the Lower House Budget Committee. "Actually, the school name was 'Kaisei elementary school.' "

Abe criticized the Asahi article for not having conducted additional reporting to verify its accuracy and also called Kagoike a "flagrant liar."

The prime minister likely pegged some of his criticism on the release in November 2017 by the Finance Ministry of the document submitted by Moritomo Gakuen that gave the name of the planned school as "Kaisei elementary school."

The Asahi published an article on Nov. 25, a day after the document was made public, reporting on the document, but added that it had previously carried the interview with Kagoike in which he said the document had included Abe's name for the school.

Feb. 5 was not the first time Abe has criticized Asahi reporting. He mentioned the same article in responding in the Diet on Jan. 29, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 even though the questions he was asked had nothing to do with the contents of the Asahi article.

Regarding such comments by Abe, a high-ranking member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) said, "He is seeking to deflate the credibility of the statements by Kagoike."

Other opposition party lawmakers raised concerns about the effect on the dignity of the Diet through Abe's repeated references to the Asahi.

"Responding in that fashion by raising the name of a specific company is not in line with the dignity of the Upper House," said Kotaro Tatsumi, a member of the Japanese Communist Party.

SCHOOL LONG USED ABE'S NAME

Yuichiro Tamaki, of the opposition Kibo no To (Hope), said in the Lower House Budget Committee session on Feb. 5 that he spoke in February 2017 with Osaka prefectural government officials handling the Moritomo Gakuen matter.

"During the consultation stage (before Moritomo Gakuen submitted the application), there were several proposals (for the school name)," Tamaki said. "I asked what kind of proposals were made and the official in charge responded, 'Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school.' Rather than just say the article was erroneous, Abe should offer a sincere response."

Moritomo Gakuen has long used "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school" in its plans for a private elementary school.

Around spring 2014, Moritomo Gakuen distributed materials to the parents of children attending the kindergarten it operated asking for donations for the planned elementary school. The form to make payments had printed on it "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school." Kagoike had also admitted that at one time he used that name to collect donations.

Moritomo Gakuen submitted in October 2014 to the Osaka prefectural government an application for approval to establish an elementary school. According to high-ranking officials of the Osaka prefectural board of education, the name for the school at that time was "Mizuho no Kuni Kinen Shogakuin" (elementary school in commemoration of Japan). But before the application was submitted, Moritomo Gakuen used "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school" as a tentative name for the planned school.

After the questionable land deal came to light in February 2017, a major focus of attention was whether Finance Ministry officials negotiated with Moritomo Gakuen while mindful of its connection to Abe and his wife.

The name of "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school" was repeatedly raised during the Lower House plenary session of March 14, 2017, as well as in the Upper House Budget Committee session on March 23, 2017, in which Kagoike appeared as a sworn witness.

Moreover, in the Lower House Budget Committee session on May 8, 2017, Nobuyuki Fukushima, who was then a member of the Democratic Party, produced the application submitted by Moritomo Gakuen and released by the Finance Ministry that had large sections blacked out.

Saying he had talked to Kagoike, Fukushima asked ministry officials if the title of the document was "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school." He also asked for an explanation based on the consent he had obtained from Kagoike to disclose the title.

Nobuhisa Sagawa, then director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, rejected the request on the grounds the document contained a description of the school's operation policy that was considered information that should not be publicized under the information disclosure law.

Sagawa also explained that even if Kagoike had consented, there was a need to confirm with the bankruptcy administrator about releasing the information since Moritomo Gakuen by that time was undergoing bankruptcy proceedings.

Fukushima criticized the ministry's decision to not even disclose the title of the document.

With the Finance Ministry refusing to release the information, Asahi reporters interviewed Kagoike that same day to confirm what was written on the document. In response to repeated questions, Kagoike said the document contained the wording "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school."

An article posted on The Asahi Shimbun's Asia and Japan Watch website on May 9, 2017, said in part, "Kagoike also said that his request submitted to the bureau in September 2013 regarding the land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, included a document explaining that a planned elementary school on the site would be named 'Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school.' "

Six months after that Kagoike interview, the Finance Ministry responded to a request from the CDP and released the application from Moritomo Gakuen because the ministry had received an opinion from the bankruptcy administrator that said there would be no problem publicizing the information.

The document had as the name of the planned school "Kaisei elementary school."

In its Nov. 25, 2017, morning edition, the Asahi published an article about the document released the previous day while also including its past coverage about Kagoike saying the school would be named "Shinzo Abe commemorative elementary school."

OPPOSITION WANTS TESTIMONY IN DIET

In recent weeks, Finance Ministry officials have acknowledged that documents do exist related to the negotiations over state-owned land to Moritomo Gakuen.

However, in the Diet session of a year ago, Sagawa said negotiations were never held with Moritomo Gakuen officials over the land price and that all documents related to those negotiations had already been discarded.

Opposition parties have demanded that not only Sagawa, but also Akie Abe appear before the Diet to answer questions about what they know about the negotiations to sell the land to Moritomo Gakuen.

Kagoike often boasted of close ties with Akie, and suspicions have been raised about whether that relationship led to the sharp discount it received for the land.

Opposition parties have long demanded that Akie appear before the Diet because between September 2015 and February 2017 she served as honorary principal of the elementary school planned by Moritomo Gakuen. She abruptly resigned the post when media reports emerged.

Other questions about the land sale eventually led Moritomo Gakuen to abandon its plan to open the elementary school, although the building was built, and it has filed for bankruptcy.