A controversial nationalist educator said under oath Thursday he had received a donation for his school from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe despite the premier's repeated denials in an intensifying political scandal that has gripped the country.
The nationally televised testimony by Yasunori Kagoike came as his purchase of government land at a huge discount has dominated media coverage for weeks.
Abe, whose high approval ratings have taken a hit, has repeatedly denied giving Kagoike money and on more than one occasion offered to resign if he was found to be involved in the land deal.
Analysts have said that there would likely be nothing illegal in such a donation, but if proven it could damage Abe's credibility given his steadfast denials.
Kagoike operates a kindergarten in the western city of Osaka that inculcates pupils with pre-World War II nationalist and native Shinto religious values and has made insulting comments about Chinese and Koreans.
When the controversy erupted last month, he was preparing to open an elementary school in a nearby city on the land purchased from the government at a price reportedly some one-tenth the market value.
The complex scandal has also drawn in Abe's hawkish defence minister and dominated parliamentary deliberations for weeks.
Kagoike's testimony prompted a media frenzy with five networks broadcasting it live.
He was summoned by lawmakers after his claim last week that Abe's wife Akie handed him one million yen ($9,000) in cash in his office in 2015 and said the money was from her husband.
Kagoike offered no proof in parliament, but said he vividly remembers the day when she visited his kindergarten to deliver a speech.
"She asked her aide to step outside. When it was just the two of us alone in the room, she said 'This is from Shinzo Abe' and gave me an envelope containing one million yen as a donation," he told lawmakers.
"I have heard Madame Akie has (recently) said she absolutely does not remember it. But for us, it was such an honour and I remember it very well," he said.
- 'No recollection' -
Akie Abe had been named honorary principal of the proposed elementary school -- plans for which have now been scrapped -- but stepped down last month as the land scandal swirled.
Kagoike also bitterly complained how Abe and other conservatives quickly distanced themselves from him as the scandal dominated national media, saying he refuses to be the sole villain.
Abe's government quickly issued a fresh denial.
"Of course, Madame Akie has said she has no recollection" of giving him money, Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, told a regular briefing.
He also insisted that the testimony would not damage Abe's government.
The prime minister, who himself has long championed nationalist values, was tightlipped, only referring journalists to Suga's comments.
Kagoike's testimony came as opinion surveys conducted by major media have shown declines in support for Abe over the scandal.
The top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper found that approval for Abe's government has dropped by 10 percentage points to 56 percent in a poll released Monday.
Though still high, the daily said it marked the biggest monthly fall since Abe took office in December 2012.
Kagoike has drawn enormous public curiosity as his kindergarten promotes ultra-nationalistic teachings similar to those taught through the end of the war but which most Japanese now find anachronistic.
Pupils, for example, memorise an 1890 imperial decree on education, seen as having been used to inculcate pre-war students with the idea they must be ready to die for the emperor if necessary.
Preschoolers were also taught to chant messages supporting Abe and his policies, such as a controversial law to expand the role of the nation's military.