Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday that the ministry has found digital copies of 14 of 19 documents related to the Kake Gakuen scandal, including those suggesting the Cabinet Office pressured the ministry to approve a university project citing “the intent” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The confirmed copies of the documents will deal a serious blow to Abe’s Cabinet, as the government has denied their existence.
The ministry was forced to reopen its probe into the papers this week after heated public criticism following media reports of statements by anonymous whistleblowers and former top ministry official Kihei Maekawa.
The existence of eight of the 14 papers were first reported by the Asahi Shimbun on May 17, but the education ministry said on May 19 that it could not find them after an internal investigation.
The probe drew harsh criticism from the public because the ministry interviewed a small number of officials and only examined one shared online folder used by ministry officials of the Technical Education Division.
“The previous probe was considered a rational one at that time, but I’m really sorry because now the existence of the documents has become clear,” Matsuno told a hastily arranged news conference.
Matsuno maintains that the government selected the school operator Kake Gakuen for a special deregulation project in an open and proper manner, as Abe has repeatedly argued.
Government officials have repeatedly pointed out that no illegal acts were involved in approving Kake Gakuen’s application to open a veterinary medicine department, and Abe has denied placing any pressure to favor Kake Gakuen.
According to ministry officials, some of the 14 documents have slightly different formats and fonts from the ones circulating in media and political circles in recent weeks. But the reason they are different is unclear and the content is almost identical, they said.Later Thursday, Kozo Yamamoto, a minister in charge of regional revitalization, told reporters that the Cabinet Office will reopen its own investigation into the Kake Gakuen papers as well as related records and reveal the results by the end of Friday.
On Tuesday Hiroyuki Yoshiie, a state minister of education, indicated that ministry officials who leaked information and documents about the Kake Gakuen scandal to media outlets could be punished for legal violation of the confidentiality obligation under the National Public Service Law.
Asked if the ministry could punish any whistleblowers connected to the Kake Gakuen scandal, Matsuno declined to comment.
During recent regular news conferences through Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s right-hand man, had staunchly refused to reopen any government probes into the papers despite the apparent shortcomings of the earlier investigation.
Suga dismissed the documents as “suspicious papers of unknown origin,” ignoring statements from Maekawa and other anonymous whistleblowers who were quoted by major media outlets.
Asked about the responsibility for denying the credibility of the documents and statements and delaying the opening of the second investigation, Suga dodged, saying that the Kake Gakuen issue is “a matter to be handled primarily by the education ministry.”
Kake Gakuen is chaired by one of Abe’s closest friends, and the government in January gave it the green light to open the nation’s first new veterinary school in 52 years.
The apparent favorable conditions for Kake Gakuen have raised suspicions that Abe or high-ranking officials close to him might have favored Kake Gakuen by overriding government-set criteria in allowing a university to open a new veterinary department.
One of the 14 documents quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the highest-level” people at the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to quickly approve the application from Kake Gakuen to open the department.
Another document quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” is to approve the new department as quickly as possible. If the allegation in the document is true, it shows that the Cabinet Office pressured the education ministry on at least two separate occasions.
“Seeing the results of hearings (with ministry workers), now we believe workers at the Cabinet Office made these kind of remarks,” Matsuno told a news conference.
But he added those Cabinet Office officials didn’t elaborate further and thus the education ministry is not sure about “what they really meant to say” exactly.
The education ministry also released a new related document, which is a draft of a set of government conditions for allowing a university to open a new veterinary department. The discovery of this PDF is likely to deepen public suspicion over the alleged government favoritism for Kake Gakuen.
On that PDF, three hand-written phrases were inserted into the text to read that a university will be allowed to open such a department “only if” a similar department does not exist in nearby regions.
This insertion reportedly favors Kake Gakuen by disqualifying potential rival Kyoto Sangyo University for the special deregulation project because nearby Osaka Prefecture University already has a veterinary department.
Meanwhile, an e-mail sent by a Cabinet Office official in November showed that those phrases were inserted because of “an instruction” from Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, a close aide to Abe.
Hagiuda has denied he exerted any influence to favor Kake Gakuen.
Later the same day, Maekawa, who held a news conference on May 25 to vouch for the authenticity of several Kake Gakuen-related documents, released a statement to media outlets.
“It’s just a matter of course that what in fact had existed would be confirmed to have existed,” he wrote.
“But its grieves me to see so many people working for the education ministry having to undergo such a difficult time,” Maekawa wrote.