Former top education ministry bureaucrat Kihei Maekawa reaffirmed on Monday his assertion that top officials in the government manipulated key decision-making processes to help out a school run by a close confidant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I believe there was some behind-the-scenes work at play on the part of Prime Minister’s office,” Maekawa told a one-off committee session in the Diet held to deliberate the issue. He remained adamant that the alleged intervention was characterized by “unfairness” and “opacity.”
In May, Maekawa rocked Japan’s political arena by vouching for the authenticity of leaked internal documents that pointed to alleged favoritism on the part of Abe.
The Diet hearing Monday placed a fresh spotlight on the affair, which has arguably evolved into the biggest crisis that Abe’s 4½-year-old administration has ever faced.
On Monday, the latest opinion poll from the conservative daily Yomiuri Shimbun showed that support for Abe’s Cabinet has plummeted 13 points since mid-June to 36 percent — the lowest since he returned to power in December 2012.
A poll by the liberal Asahi Shimbun placed his popularity at 33 percent, down from 38 percent a week ago.
The Diet hearing was convened in response to the growing outcry over Abe’s perceived lack of accountability, which along with other missteps and gaffes committed by his administration handed his ruling Liberal Democratic Party a historic defeat in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election earlier this month.
The rout left the LDP, which originally insisted the scandal had been thoroughly explained in this year’s ordinary Diet session that closed mid-June, with no option but accept opposition calls to open a special Diet hearing.
Abe himself, however, was absent from Monday’s session to attend this year’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, and visit European leaders.
A composed Maekawa, who was summoned to the Diet as an unsworn witness, reasserted his suspicion that the government unduly intervened last year to expedite the rare opening of a new veterinary department at a university run by school firm Kake Gakuen. The university is in a special deregulation zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
Opening a veterinary department requires government approval, and has to meet four conditions that were set forth by the Abe administration in 2015.
Maekawa described the ways in which the government restructured those conditions late last year in an apparent bid to give Kake Gakuen the upper hand against rivals when competing for the right to open the first new veterinary department in decades.
In November last year, a government panel approved a revised guideline stipulating that a new veterinary department can be opened on condition that there is no institution eligible to groom veterinarians in the vicinity or in areas further beyond.
This new prerequisite, which was allegedly added at the request of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary and close Abe ally Koichi Hagiuda, effectively knocked Kake Gakuen’s main contender, Kyoto Sangyo University, out of the race because the prefecture adjacent to it, Osaka, already had a veterinary faculty.
“It seems to me that a victory for Kake Gakuen was a given from the get-go,” Maekawa told the Diet.
“The whole process was designed to choose Kake Gakuen,” he said, arguing that Imabari won its bid to host a veterinary department “without its proposals being fully scrutinized.”
“I think the decision was made in a very unfair and opaque manner that was kept hidden from public eyes,” he said.
However, Eiji Hara, a member of a government committee that mulled Imabari’s bid who also was summoned as an unsworn witness to defend the ruling coalition, slammed Maekawa’s assertion as an “utter falsehood.”
Maekawa also took a swipe at Abe, criticizing a remark he made during a recent speech in Kobe stating that the government would swiftly lead a “nationwide” effort to create new veterinary departments.
By saying this, Abe seemed to be trying to assert that he genuinely believes Japan needs more veterinarians and to dispel speculation he was giving preferential treatment to Kake Gakuen.
The former top education ministry official, however, said the government shouldn’t try to churn out veterinary departments at a breakneck pace as was suggested by Abe, arguing it should first gauge how the Imabari project works out.
Abe’s plan is “logically impossible,” Maekawa said.
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