In a revelation likely to rekindle criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, media reports Tuesday suggested that one of his then-executive assistants said in a 2015 meeting that the prime minister was directly behind a bid by an Okayama school chain to win government approval for a new university department in a special deregulation zone.
The daily Asahi Shimbun ran a front-page article featuring a photocopy of a document it said was written by municipal officials from Ehime Prefecture detailing the exchange with Tadao Yanase — Abe’s former secretary — in April 2015. Yanase has repeatedly denied having attended such a meeting.
The memo quoted Yanase as describing the bid by Kake Gakuen — which is chaired by Abe’s longtime confidant Kotaro Kake — to win government approval to open a new veterinary department at one of its universities as “the prime minister’s matter.”
Later Tuesday at a hastily arranged news conference, Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura said a prefectural official had admitted to producing the document in question to record a visit to the Prime Minister’s Office on April 2, 2015, according to Kyodo News. The governor didn’t identify the official.
Asked if Abe actually played a role in the university project, the governor was quoted by Kyodo News as saying: “I just don’t know.”
Opposition lawmakers have long suspected that Kake Gakuen won the approval to open the department in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, thanks to Kake’s close relationship with the prime minister. Abe has denied any involvement in the government decision, but the Asahi report, combined with Nakamura’s admission, is likely to deepen public suspicion.
In January last year, Kake Gakuen’s Okayama University of Science successfully won government approval, going on to become the nation’s first institute in 52 years to open a new veterinary department earlier this month.
If proven genuine, the document will become the second to implicate Abe in the yearlong Kake Gakuen saga. In June last year, an internal document surfaced quoting a senior Cabinet Office official as telling the education ministry in September 2016 that “the highest-level officials” at the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to create the “shortest possible schedule” to allow Kake Gakuen to open the new department.
Even if favoritism by Abe were to be confirmed, any involvement would be unlikely to have strayed beyond his legal remit. But it would nonetheless deal a heavy blow to his government, directly contradicting answers he has given in previous Diet sessions and severely undermining the credibility of his statements.
Coupled with the recent flare-up of a separate alleged favoritism scandal involving nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen and Abe’s wife, Akie, such a scenario could further weaken his grip on power and cast doubt over his chances of winning a third term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September’s leadership election.
In a regular news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga neither denied nor attested to the authenticity of the document in question, saying only that the government is “not aware” of it.
Suga said he will have relevant ministries probe the existence of such a document. The Asahi report quoted an Ehime source as saying they “cannot deny the possibility that the document is something we distributed to government ministries as we were lobbying for our bid” to open the department.
Yanase, for his part, released a statement strongly denying the Asahi report, insisting that the meeting with Ehime officials never took place — just as he repeatedly stated during Diet sessions.
“Although I remember meeting many different people on a daily basis as the prime minister’s assistant, I have never met officials from Imabari and Ehime, as far as my memory goes,” said Yanase, who is now a top bureaucrat at the Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry.
Yanase claimed that it was long after he left his position as the prime minister’s assistant that the screening processes to determine which candidate should qualify for the deregulation project started to proceed in earnest.
“It is therefore inconceivable that I would have such a detailed discussion with someone from the outside and say that this is the prime minister’s matter,” Yanase wrote in the statement.
The document obtained by the Asahi quoted Yanase as suggesting that Ehime officials should proceed to a hearing by Yutaka Fujiwara — the senior Cabinet Office official singled out by last year’s leaked document as the source who conveyed the “highest-level” intent of the prime minister to the education ministry.
The newly revealed document also suggests that Yanase urged Ehime officials to pursue government approval desperately — “as if they would die for it.”
Separately, the Tokyo Shimbun also ran a front-page article alleging that Fujiwara suggested to officials from Ehime and Kake Gakuen in April 2015 — two months before the school chain filed its application for the deregulation project — that they consider entering the contest. The daily said this revelation will further stoke suspicions that the whole screening process was rigged in Kake’s favor from the start.
On Tuesday, lawmakers from six opposition parties conducted a hearing with officials from the Cabinet Office, the education ministry and the agricultural ministry. One of them — Hideyuki Shiomi of the Cabinet Office — said he “can’t completely rule out” the possibility that the document scooped by the Asahi exists in his organization.
While grilling him, lawmaker Kazunori Yamanoi of Kibo no To (Party of Hope) said that if the document describing the Kake Gakuen project as the “prime minister’s matter” is found to be genuine, “it means the Abe administration has continued to lie to the public for the whole year.”
Abe has repeatedly denied in Diet sessions that he ever used his influence in his friend’s favor, even claiming — much to the incredulity of opposition lawmakers — that he wasn’t aware Kake had applied for the deregulation program until Jan. 20 last year, the same day the school was selected as the ultimate winner.