Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, Germany, Monday, March 20, 2017. (Peter Steffen/dpa via AP)

Tokyo - The head of a Japanese educational foundation at the centre of a real estate scandal told parliament he received a donation from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe via his wife, prompting a fresh denial from the top government spokesman.

Speaking under oath in the Diet for the first time on Thursday, school principal Yasunori Kagoike said that Akie Abe personally handed him an envelope containing 1 million yen ($9 000) in cash during her September 2015 visit to a kindergarten operated by the nationalist group. “She told me it was from Shinzo Abe,” Kagoike said.

Afterward, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated previous denials. “The prime minister did not make a donation himself,” he told reporters. “He did not donate through his wife Akie, nor through his office or a third party," he said, adding that it was his understanding that Abe’s wife didn’t made a donation in a personal capacity either.

The allegations have dented Abe’s popularity and may prompt him to delay calling an election due by the end of next year. Questions over how the foundation, known as Moritomo Gakuen, was able to purchase publicly owned land in Osaka for a fraction of its market value have dominated parliamentary discussions for weeks.

‘Bit surprised’

Kagoike said he had called Akie the month after her visit to seek help with buying land to build a new elementary school, but received a faxed refusal from her staff. He said he was “a bit surprised" later to find the foundation had been able to buy the tract for 134 million yen, which he said was a discount of about 800 million yen. When asked whether there was political involvement in the deal, he told lawmakers that he thought there was.

Kagoike first made the allegations of the donation in a meeting with opposition lawmakers last week. Government spokesman Suga said at the time that he had “absolutely no idea” what Kagoike based his remarks on, and Abe’s denials prompted lawmakers to summon the school head to clarify the matter under sworn testimony. The prime minister has also said he’d step down if any link emerges between himself and the real estate transaction.

Financial markets had little reaction to the latest remarks. Japan’s benchmark Topix index slipped 0.1 percent at 1:45 p.m. in Tokyo, while the yen halted seven days of gains against the dollar.

Used name

Kagoike told lawmakers he had at one point used Shinzo Abe’s name while fundraising for the school, without gaining his permission. Akie Abe had been set to act as its honorary principal, but dropped the plan as the scandal came to light.

A poll conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper on March 18-19 found that support for Abe’s cabinet had fallen to 56 percent from 66 percent the previous month, as news emerged of links between Moritomo and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Inada said this month that she acted for the foundation in a law case years ago, after retracting earlier remarks denying she represented the group.

Inada also said Kagoike attended one of her political fundraising parties. Abe has already denied in parliament making a donation directly or through his wife.

The Tsukamoto kindergarten is known for making children bow to portraits of the emperor and recite a 19th century imperial decree on education -- practices dropped elsewhere after Japan’s World War II defeat. Last month, the kindergarten apologized for using expressions that "could cause misunderstanding among foreigners." Kyodo news agency reported that the principal had been questioned over alleged slurs against Koreans and Chinese.

Lawmakers summoned Kagoike to parliament under his real name, which is Yasuhiro Kagoike. The school operator told lawmakers he had been a "big fan" of Abe, but had decided to make his case public after the prime minister referred to him in parliament as "extremely pushy."