The new veterinary school at the center of favoritism allegations leveled at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has obtained formal approval to open in Ehime Prefecture, education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Tuesday.
The approval enables the school operator, run by Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake, to launch the country’s first new veterinary department in over half a century next April in a government-designated deregulation zone, despite the scandal that at one point hurt the prime minister’s approval ratings.
Suspicions remain as to whether Abe used his influence to sway a government decision to set up the department, with opposition parties expected to intensify their questioning over the issue. Abe has flatly denied any involvement.
Hayashi said in a news conference that the project has been judged to comply with laws and rules, including standards to set up universities. He said the decision was made due to a ministry panel’s report last week giving the green light to the project.
“I have confirmed the project is in line with the school operator’s plan that has been approved in the (monitoring) process under national strategic economic zones,” he said, adding there were no defects in the process.
Opposition parties have raised questions over the veterinary school project as they doubt it meets four conditions set by Abe’s Cabinet in June 2015, including that a new institution is supposed to deal with problems difficult for existing universities to address.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed Hayashi’s view, telling a separate news conference that opposition claims on the matter are unfounded.
But Akira Nagatsuma, a senior lawmaker of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called the approval “outrageous” and urged the government to withdraw it and provide a thorough explanation on the issue.
Seiji Mataichi, secretary-general of the Social Democratic Party, said Abe “benefited his friend by using politics for his private purposes” and called for Diet deliberations on the matter.
Kotaro Kake released a statement saying that operator Kake Educational Institution “will make efforts to enrich (the new school’s) education and research program to train human resources who can play active roles in the world.”
In approving the project, the panel listed eight points of concern. For example, it called for the operator Kake Gakuen (Kake Educational Institution) to ensure the proposed quota of 140 students, one of the largest in the nation, does not inhibit the quality of educational research.
In January, the Abe government approved Kake’s plan to construct the new department in a deregulation zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. In March, the school operator sought approval for the project 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 the favoritism allegation surfaced, citing problems in the school’s education program.
The government had not given consent to the opening of a new veterinary school for five decades amid concerns about a glut of veterinarians.
Despite Abe’s repeated denials of his involvement in the approval process, documents found at the education ministry have indicated that officials at the Cabinet Office, which oversees specially deregulated economic zones, pressured the ministry ahead of the government decision to allow the Kake project to move forward.
The documents included direction said to be from “the highest level of the Prime Minister’s Office” and “in line with the prime minister’s wishes.”