The education ministry’s former top bureaucrat fired up the simmering Kake Gakuen scandal at a news conference Thursday by vouching for the authenticity of documents that suggest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swayed its decision to approve the opening of a new veterinary medicine department run by his friend at a university in Shikoku.
The government flatly denied Abe was involved in the decision, and the ruling coalition led by his party spurned a call by the opposition camp to summon former Vice Education Minister Kihei Maekawa as an unsworn witness to the Diet.
“I’m sure that the documents did exist,” Maekawa told a news conference on Thursday afternoon in Tokyo.
Maekawa, who held the ministry’s highest post for an elite bureaucrat, also told reporters he was willing to testify in the Diet as a sworn witness, if necessary.
Okayama University of Science is run by school operator Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), which is chaired by Kotaro Kake, one of Abe’s closest friends.
“All of the (documents) were shown to me by officials at the Technical Education Division when I was briefed about the new veterinary medicine department,” Maekawa said in an interview published by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper the same day.
“It would be untrue if I say the education ministry didn’t feel pressured when those words were presented,” Maekawa was quoted as saying by the major daily.
The government has repeatedly claimed that the documents, whose content was first reported by the Asahi on May 17, were “of unknown origin” and denied Abe’s involvement in setting government criteria that apparently favored Kake Gakuen in its bid to run the university’s new department.
At the news conference, Maekawa said he has copies of papers identical to the eight documents in question.
Maekawa claimed that the documents were all produced by ministry officials and that he obtained them in September and October last year during staff briefings.
One of the documents, obtained by The Japan Times, quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying that “the prime minister’s intent” is to allow a new department to be opened as quickly as possible in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture — an apparent reference to the university’s proposal.
Another paper quotes the Cabinet Office as saying that “the highest-level” officials at the Prime Minister’s Office want the education ministry to create the “shortest possible schedule” for allowing Kake Gakuen to open the new department in April 2018.
Opposition lawmakers have maintained the papers are authentic, and Abe may have urged the ministries to favor Kake Gakuen in drawing up new government criteria for approving the opening of the department.
Even if the allegations are true, it is unlikely to constitute illegal conduct. But it would still deal a blow to the administration, because Abe has repeatedly and vehemently denied he exerted any influence on behalf of his friend to approve Kake Gakuen’s application.
The opening of veterinary medicine departments is strictly regulated by the government, which says that Japan already has a sufficient number of animal doctors to meet demands.
According to the 2015 government-set criteria, a new animal medicine department should not be opened unless it is backed up with a projection that there will be future demand for veterinaries that will match the number of graduates from the university.
But neither did the agricultural ministry or the health ministry provide such a projection. Still, the Cabinet Office overrode the criteria and gave the green light to the Kake Gakuen project “by distorting administrative processes,” Maekawa claimed.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated denials of Abe’s alleged involvement.
“The education ministry has reported to us that they could not confirm existence of the documents in question after conducting investigation,” Suga told a news conference.
Suga also said that Cabinet Office officials have all denied that they mentioned “the prime minister’s intent” or “the highest-level” officials at the Prime Minister’s Office as alleged in the papers.
“The prime minister has also told me that he hasn’t given any instructions like that, either,” Suga said.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology interviewed several officials and surveyed files stored on the ministry’s server, reporting that they have not found any such papers outlined in the Asahi report.
However, the ministry only looked into shared folders and files on the ministry’s server, not the data stored on personal computers used by ministry officials.
Opposition lawmakers have argued no official would keep politically sensitive, confidential files in shared folders on the official server, calling for a more thorough investigation of personal computers.
Kotaro Kake has been a friend of Abe since the 1970s, as they reportedly became close while studying at University of Southern California.
For a long time, the government disapproved of any new veterinary medicine departments at universities, partly because of opposition from the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, a national lobby group.
However in June 2015 Abe’s government started to consider deregulating the rules opening the door for universities to establish new veterinary medicine departments.
In January this year, the government approved the proposal from Kake Gakuen, the first such permit given in 52 years.
The education ministry is now undergoing final screening processes to decide whether to allow Kake Gakuen’s plan to open the campus in April next year.
The municipal government of Imabari now plans to offer a plot of land valued at ¥3.68 billion to Kake Gakuen for free to build the new campus.
The city office and the Ehime Prefectural Government also plan to subsidize up to ¥9.6 billion to help Kake Gakuen build new department facilities.
Maekawa was forced to step down in January to take responsibility for his involvement in the amakudari, an illegal practice of securing colleagues a post-retirement job.