Photo/IllutrationFirst lady Akie Abe (Photo by Kotaro Ebara)

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Opposition parties said Finance Ministry documents show that first lady Akie Abe was involved in transactions that eventually led to a huge discount on state-owned land sold to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party officials, however, brushed aside the allegations, saying the ministry documents released on May 23 reveal nothing new.

The ministry submitted to the Diet hundreds of pages of documents, including files that had been erased, related to the transaction of the land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

References to Akie appear in the documents, including her apparent interest in obtaining “favorable treatment” for Moritomo Gakuen concerning the fee it was paying to rent the state-owned land.

Abe and his wife have denied playing any part in the transactions between the Finance Ministry and the school operator.

But misleading statements in the Diet, altered documents and Akie’s former position as honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo Gakuen had planned on the land have heightened the opposition’s contention that the operator received political favors because of its connections to the first lady.

At a joint hearing between opposition parties and ministry officials on the afternoon of May 23, a lawmaker held up one of the documents and said, “Despite this, are you still going to judge that Akie was not involved in the transaction?”

The document was a memo dated Nov. 10, 2015, and titled, “Request for fee reduction of fixed-term lease.”

The memo referred to a request by Saeko Tani, a government official in charge of Akie, to the Non-Administrative Asset Utilization and Disposition Policy Division of the ministry’s Financial Bureau.

In May 2015, six months before the memo was written, the ministry’s Kinki Local Finance Bureau had concluded a contract with Moritomo Gakuen to lease the state-owned land under a fixed term.

According to the memo, Tani said a recent newspaper report showed that the government was considering offering favorable treatment to social welfare organizations in relation to the system for fixed-term leases.

“(Moritomo Gakuen) asked the prime minister’s wife about whether it could also receive the same favorable treatment,” the memo quoted Tani as saying. “So I’m making this inquiry.”

In response, an official of the division said, “The person in charge of the issue is not here now, so we will call you back.”

According to another memo, dated two days later on Nov. 12, 2015, the director of the Office of Individual Issue Coordination of Government Assets called Tani and said, “School facilities are not subject to favorable treatment.”

However, the director added, “As the Finance Ministry, we are giving maximum consideration within the current rules.”

The memo said the reason why Tani called the ministry was, “There was an inquiry from the elementary school scheduled to be opened, to which the prime minister’s wife has assumed the post of honorary adviser.”

Another memo, dated Nov. 5, 2015, five days before Tani’s call, read that Yasunori Kagoike, then head director of Moritomo Gakuen, asked for a reduction in the lease fee at a meeting with officials of the Kinki bureau.

The memo quotes Kagoike as telling the officials, “I have told the prime minister’s wife that the lease fee is too high.”

Other previously released documents, audio recordings and accounts from sources indicate that negotiations between Moritomo Gakuen and bureau officials over the rent eventually led to the sale of the land in 2016 for 134 million yen ($1.21 million), far below its appraised value of 956 million yen.

The ministry has said the discount was offered to cover the cost to remove waste buried deep in the ground. But the Board of Audit, after conducting a study of the land, found this explanation implausible.

Abe said in the Diet in February 2017 that if he or his wife were found to have been involved in the transaction, he would resign as prime minister and as a Diet member.

Yuichiro Tamaki, a co-representative of the Democratic Party for the People, told reporters on May 23, “The Finance Ministry’s documents support the view that the existence of Akie had a big influence on the land transaction.”

He added, “Abe should recall what he said and judge by himself that he should resign as prime minister and as a Diet member.”

An LDP executive indicated that the Abe government is not worried about the recently released documents.

“The opposition parties will intensify their attacks on us, but the released documents showed nothing new that is surprising to us,” the executive said.

A Cabinet member also said the released documents would not have a negative effect on the Abe administration.

“There will be no influence,” the Cabinet member said. “The support rate (for the Abe administration) is on a rising trend.”

However, an LDP lawmaker who had previously served as a Cabinet member suggested that doubts will deepen further.

“I feel that members of our party are holding their breath awaiting future developments of the scandal,” the lawmaker said.