On Thursday a former top ministry official dropped a bombshell in a hastily held news conference in Tokyo.
Kihei Maekawa, former vice minister of education, alleged that the Cabinet Office distorted administrative processes by citing the intent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in approving a project concerning Kake Gakuen, a school run by his close friend.
Supporting these claims, Maekawa attested to the authenticity of eight documents, which had been circulating in the media and political circles, asserting that they were produced by education ministry officials last year when he was vice minister.
The following is a rundown of what is written in the documents in question, and the potential implications for Abe’s government.
What is the Kake Gakuen scandal?
Kake Gakuen is an school operator based in Okayama and chaired by Kotaro Kake, who reportedly became friends with Abe while they were studying overseas at a U.S. university in the 1970s.
In January, Kake Gakuen won approval from the central government to open a new animal medicine department of its Okayama University of Science in a special deregulation zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
Opposition lawmakers have suspected that the government might have chosen Kake Gakuen for the deregulation project because of Abe’s close friendship with Kake.
It was the first time in 52 years that the government gave approval for such a department, as it had been the long-standing view that the number of veterinarians in Japan has been sufficient to meet demand.
Still the municipal government of Imabari plans to offer a plot of land valued at ¥3.68 billion to Kake Gakuen for free to build the new campus.
Those favorable conditions have drawn public attention to the suspicion of influence raised by opposition lawmakers.
According to the daily Chiba Nippo, Abe called Kake “my bosom friend who is always tied with me at the bottom of our hearts” when he addressed the 10th anniversary ceremony of Chiba Institute of Science, part of the Kake Gakuen group, on May 24, 2014.
Abe and government officials have strongly denied any wrongdoing in choosing Kake Gakuen for the special deregulation project, saying the entity was chosen through fair and open administrative processes.
What’s on the documents?
The eight documents were allegedly produced by the education ministry. Their existence and content were first reported by the daily Asahi Shimbun on May 17, creating a stir and spurring opposition lawmakers to call for a government investigation.
One of the documents, obtained by The Japan Times, quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” is to allow a new department to be opened as quickly as possible in Imabari — an apparent reference to the university’s proposal.
Another paper quotes the Cabinet Office as saying “the highest-level” officials in 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.
What has Maekawa said about the documents?
According to Maekawa, the documents were education ministry memos produced last fall, used in briefings for senior ministry officials, including Maekawa.
The ministry’s former top bureaucrat said he thought the “highest-level” officials referred to either Abe or Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Maekawa alleged that the Cabinet Office “has distorted administrative processes that should be fair and impartial” by citing the intent of the prime minister to approve the Kake Gakuen project.
In 2015 the government set four criteria to approve the opening of a new animal medicine department at a university.
The criteria are: a proposal with a plan outlining a new concept; clear demand for vets in new areas; evidence that existing universities are unable to meet that demand; and consideration of the latest supply-and-demand balance of vets nationwide.
The Kake Gakuen project had met none of the criteria, Maekawa said, especially since none of the government ministries have provided any projection of future demand for veterinarians.
What happens if the allegations are true?
The alleged actions, even if proven true, are unlikely to constitute illegal conduct by either Abe or the Cabinet Office.
The scandal would still deal a blow to the administration, because Abe has repeatedly and vehemently denied that Kake’s close relationship with the prime minister was a factor in the government’s choice of Kake Gakuen for the deregulation project.
It would also seriously damage the credibility of Abe’s government, which has denied the existence of the documents and has refused to reopen any investigation even after Maekawa’s public testimony.
The education ministry has insisted it could not find any of the eight documents after surveying the online folder shared by officials at the Technical Education Division.
Despite repeated requests from journalists and opposition lawmakers, the ministry has refused to look into the data storage of personal computers used by 31 officials at the division.
What political impact could Maekawa’s testimony have on Abe’s administration?
While it has already significantly damaged the administration’s public image and the credibility of official statements, it’s unclear whether Abe’s popularity will be dented.
Without a forceful opposition or charismatic rivals within the Liberal Democratic Party, most voters see few alternatives to Abe’s government.
If the approval rate plummets in upcoming media polls, the chance of an LDP victory in next elections would be reduced and thus considerably weaken Abe’s political clout. The reactions of voters in media polls will likely to be the key factor in the next phase of the Kake Gakuen scandal.