Dozens of Japanese officials have escaped charges over a cronyism scandal that threatened prime minister Shinzo Abe’s grip on power.
The scandal relates to the finance ministry’s sale of public land at a huge discount to a nationalistic school operator with links to the prime minister’s wife, Akie, and subsequent tampering with official records about the arrangement.
Prosecutors in Osaka considered criminal complaints against 38 people amid accusations of breach of trust and document falsification. However, prosecutors said on Thursday they would not indict the officials, including former tax agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa, who testified to parliament that Abe did not order the document changes.
The decision will come as a relief to Abe, who has previously promised to resign if he or his wife were shown to be connected to the 85% land discount, which the government has argued reflected the cost of removing waste from the site. Abe also faces a party leadership vote in September.
However, the decision is unlikely to mark the end of the scandal. A finance ministry investigative report is due to be released early next week and opposition parties are promising to continue pursuing suspicions of cronyism.
Despite the lack of action against officials, prosecutors have previously indicted the private school operators at the centre of the controversy. Yasunori Kagoike, who headed the nationalistic school group known as Moritomo Gakuen, and his wife are accused of fraudulently claiming public subsidies.
Moritomo Gakuen’s existing kindergarten attracted attention for requiring its young pupils to bow before portraits of the imperial family, sing the national anthem daily, and learn the 1890 imperial rescript on education, which emphasises sacrifice for country.
Akie Abe was set to serve as honorary principal for the proposed new primary school, but stepped down in February last year when questions were raised about the land deal.
The government suffered a big hit to its popularity in the wake of the scandal, but Abe led his centre-right coalition to victory in a snap election he called late last year amid growing security threats from North Korea and a fragmented opposition.
The issue returned to the headlines in March this year when the finance ministry admitted that it had removed references to Shinzo and Akie Abe before submitting records to lawmakers investigating the sale. One document originally quoted Moritomo Gakuen as saying the first lady had recommended the primary school project “move forward because it is a good plot of land”. Prosecutors judged the changes had not substantially altered the character of the documents, local media reported.