• Kyodo

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An education ministry panel on Friday approved the opening of a new veterinary school that has been at the center of cronyism allegations leveled at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The school operator seeking to open the school, Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution), is run by Kotaro Kake, a close friend of Abe.

After gaining final approval from the education minister — who has indicated he will give the green light — Kake Gakuen plans to open the facility in April in a government-designated deregulation zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.

But suspicion remains that Abe influenced an earlier government decision to approve the plan, which will be the country’s first new veterinary school in over half a century. Opposition forces are expected to grill Abe over allegations that he intervened in the January decision to allow the plan to go forward.

Abe has denied the allegations of cronyism, but documents found at the education ministry indicated that officials at the Cabinet Office, which oversees specially deregulated economic zones, pressured the ministry ahead of a government decision to allow Kake to build the school. The documents included comments said to be from “the highest level of the Prime Minister’s Office” and direction “in line with the prime minister’s wishes.”

On Friday, opponents quickly criticized the panel’s decision, with Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, saying the approval “will not gain public understanding while doubts over involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office remain.”

The government had not approved the opening of new veterinary schools for five decades, with the need to train more veterinarians facing scrutiny. The Japan Veterinary Medical Association was opposed to the establishment of new schools due to concerns about a glut of vets.

Following the panel’s approval, education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi indicated his intention to approve the project. “The experts judged the plan was in line with laws and regulations,” he said. “I want to swiftly make a decision by respecting the conclusion of the panel.”

In giving its approval, the panel also listed some concerns.

It demanded that Kake Gakuen ensure the proposed quota of 140 students, one of the largest in the nation, does not inhibit the quality of educational research.

The panel also called for action to address the high proportion of elderly teachers and requested the school report on subsidies awarded by the city of Imabari, which has decided to give land to the operator for free and provide up to ¥9.6 billion together with the Ehime Prefectural Government.

In January, the Abe government approved the plan to construct a new veterinary school in the deregulation zone. In March, the Kake Gakuen sought approval from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology.

The ministry panel overseeing new university projects had planned to reach a conclusion on the issue in August but put the decision on hold after allegations of favoritism surfaced, citing problems in the education program.

Several civic groups have filed complaints with local prosecutors, accusing Abe, government officials and others involved in the school project of charges including breach of trust and fraud.

The scandal at one point led to a plunge in the approval rating of Abe’s Cabinet. The support rating later recovered and the ruling parties staged an overwhelming victory in the Oct. 22 general election.

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