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Japan First Lady's Praise for School Removed Amid Scandal

Opposition lawmakers Kiyomi Tsujimoto, right, and Masato Imai speak to reporters after visiting Osaka, western Japan, this week to investigate a scandal on a new elementary school in Tokyo, Feb. 23, 2017.

The Japanese first lady's endorsement of a private elementary school run by a man with ultra-nationalistic views has been removed from the school's website amid an escalating controversy over the low price the school paid for government land.

The property in Osaka was sold in 2016 for 134 million yen ($1.2 million), one-seventh of its appraised price, Japanese media reported. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has denied he or his wife, Akie, had any influence over the land deal. Abe, however, said he was aware that Akie served in an honorary position for the school whose president is a passionate supporter of the prime minister's views.

The same school operator runs a kindergarten with a curriculum said to resemble that of pre-World War II Japan. It plans a similar approach for the new elementary school, which is set to open in April, pending final approval by Osaka prefecture.

The scandal has dominated parliamentary debate, with opposition lawmakers summoning finance and education ministry officials to clarify how the school obtained the large discount.

Opposition Liberal Party lawmaker Masato Imai told reporters that the land deal must be scrutinized further because it's the taxpayers' money. “As honorary principal, Mrs. Akie Abe has served as a billboard for the school with various problems. We believe she bears a responsibility at least indirectly, if not directly.”

Nobutaka Sagawa, an official at the Finance Ministry, which oversees state land transactions, told parliament this week that industrial waste had been found on the land after the initial appraisal and the deduction involved the cleanup cost. He denied any illegality or political influence in the process. Officials said the waste removal was not compulsory, and they could not confirm whether the school had actually done it.

Akie Abe agreed to become honorary principal of the elementary school, “Mizuho no Kuni” (The Land of Rice),” after her visit a few years ago to the kindergarten run by Yasunori Kagoike.

Television footage from her September 2015 visit shows, she told the kindergartners' parents, “My husband also thinks that education policy here is excellent.”

In a message posted on the school website, she wrote that she was deeply impressed with Kagoike's “passion for education” and that the school's moral education fosters Japanese pride and strong principles among children. The message and her photo, which were on the website on Wednesday, were no longer there on Thursday. Phone calls to the school were not answered.

The school and Kagoike have also drawn attention over a note distributed to parents of the kindergartners that criticized Koreans and Chinese, prompting Osaka prefectural officials to question the school, which later apologized. Similar statement was also posted on the kindergarten website.

“I haven't done anything wrong,” Kagoike told TBS radio interview on Monday. “I think evil political power and non-conservative media are trying to crush our plans for a school that respects history and tradition, and is conservative.”