An article run Monday by the Yomiuri Shimbun raised suspicions that an orchestrated smear campaign is underway to intimidate Kihei Maekawa, the former bureaucrat who is backing up the opposition’s claims about the Kake Gakuen scandal dogging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The story said that former administrative vice education minister Kihei Maekawa frequented a shady dating bar in the Kabukicho district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward for a few years until around the end of last year.

It is extremely rare for a major paper like the Yomiuri — the nation’s largest daily — to run a story of this type that reports no illegalities on the part of the former vice minister. The article said the women who come to the bar often invite men out and offer sex for money.

The story immediately raised red flags in media and political circles: Was it leaked by the Prime Minister’s Office to damage Maekawa’s image and prevent him from divulging more inconvenient secrets?

Government officials appeared worried that Maekawa might speak out more about the Kake scandal in public.

At a news conference Thursday, Maekawa confirmed the authenticity of eight documents allegedly produced by the education ministry when he was there. Maekawa also said he was willing to give sworn testimony to that effect in the Diet.

The papers, whose contents were first reported by the daily Asahi Shimbun on May 17, suggest that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressured the government to approve the opening of a veterinary medicine department at a university run by Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), a school operator chaired by Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake.

The opposition camp suspects the government tried to stop Maekawa from divulging information about the scandal.

“There is suspicion that the Prime Minister’s Office may have tried to gag Mr. Maekawa by leaking information” to the Yomiuri, Kazunori Yamanoi, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party, said on Thursday.

“I’d feel really scared if the administration tried to leak scandalous information about a person who criticized or tried to criticize the government … Has Japan become such a scary country?” Yamanoi asked.

At Thursday’s news conference, Maekawa admitted he used to go to a dating bar but said the purpose was to talk to the women who went there and learn about poverty in the country. He said his interest in the issue was piqued when saw a TV documentary that said many women who go to such bars suffer from poverty.

“Sometimes I had meals with women and gave them some pocket money. Talking to them, I have learned that the issue of child poverty is connected to the poverty of women,” Maekawa told the news conference. “That was a very private act of mine. I have no idea why the Yomiuri reported about it at that time.”

Maekawa also said that a top official from the Prime Minister’s Office somehow knew about his visits to the bar.

Last fall, he said, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita noted the visits and urged him to “exercise caution.”

Asked if he believes that Abe’s government intentionally leaked the information to stop him from speaking in public, Maekawa said: “I just don’t want to believe Japan is such a country.”

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