Confronted by the emergence of a new document suggesting his involvement in a favoritism scandal linked to an Okayama-based school operator, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated denials on Wednesday that he intervened in government processes to give special approval to a university project in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
The papers, reportedly produced by an Ehime Prefectural official, quoted one of Abe’s executive assistants saying at an April 2015 meeting that the special deregulation project was “the Prime Minister’s matter.” The ex-executive assistant, Tadao Yanase, was also said to have given advice to support Kake Gakuen’s bid to open a vet department at one of its universities in Imabari, according to the document.
Yanase has denied the allegations, and during a Lower House Budget Committee session Abe said he believes Yanase, who is now a senior trade ministry official. Abe’s former aid claimed Tuesday that he had never held a meeting with Ehime and Imabari officials, contrary to the claim in the document, “as far as my memory goes.”
“I trust my own staff,” Abe told the Diet session.
If Yanase’s denials are true, that would suggest an official in Ehime manufactured a comment by Yanase and recorded it in the newly surfaced document, which was produced on April 13, 2015.
“So basically you’re accusing Ehime Prefecture of cooking up a fake document,” said Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, blasting Abe.
“Either Yanase lied or the Ehime official in charge made up and wrote a comment he didn’t hear. Those are the only possibilities,” Edano argued.
Opposition lawmakers doubt Yanase’s denials — based on his “memories” — because Imabari officials have also claimed in separate official documents that they met Yanase at the Prime Minster’s Office on April 2, 2015.
During the Diet session Wednesday, opposition lawmakers repeatedly asked if Abe believed the Ehime official was simply lying in the document. Abe staunchly refused to give any comment, saying he is “not in a position” to do that because the document was produced by the prefectural government, not by the central government.
“As past Diet questioning clarified, nobody has said they acted under my instruction (to promote the project) and there were no problems anywhere in the whole process” of selecting Kake Gakuen for the deregulation project, Abe also said. Kake Gakuen is chaired by Kotaro Kake, one of Abe’s long-time friends.
“Not once has Kake ever tried to accomplish something by taking advantage of my position. He has never consulted me or asked me for favors in connection with his plan to establish a new veterinary department,” Abe also said.
The daily Asahi Shimbun first reported the existence of the document earlier this week, and on Tuesday Ehime Gov. Tokihiro Nakamura confirmed that it was produced by a prefectural official.
Although Abe is unlikely to have broken any law, the document — if genuine — nonetheless spells trouble for the leader because Yanase’s comment directly contradicts Abe’s past answers in the Diet, undermining the credibility of his words.
The 2015 document also quoted Yanase as saying that Kake Gakuen officials had said Abe and then-education minister Hakubun Shimomura had already discussed Kake Gakuen’s bid to open a vet department at a university in Imabari.
If that allegation is true it would provoke a significant scandal in its own right, contradicting Abe’s earlier claim that he wasn’t even aware of Kake Gakuen’s intention to apply for the deregulation project until the selection process effectively ended — on Jan. 20 last year, when the operator was formally chosen as the winner.
“I think Mr. Kake was being very careful not to say anything that can be taken as some kind of petition from me. That’s one of the reasons why our friendship has been able to last this long,” Abe said, noting that his association with Kake goes back to the time when they were both in higher education.
According to the new document, Shimomura complained to Abe that Kake Gakuen was not well prepared to open a vet department at one of its universities in Imabari. In the Diet, Abe denied this allegation, too.
“Mr. Shimomura never complained to me about Kake Gakuen not having duly responded to the education ministry’s request,” Abe said.
Abe also said it’s “impossible” that one of his secretaries would have gone about describing something as one of his personal interest without Abe himself being aware of it.
Kihei Maekawa, a former top education ministry bureaucrat who last year came forward to allege unfair handling in administrative processes at the Cabinet Office following Abe’s intent having been cited in approvals for the Kake Gakuen project, hailed the emergence of the Ehime document as the discovery of one of the “missing links” that indicate favoritism by Abe.
“When the prime minister’s executive assistant formally meets someone from the outside, it means the prime minister was made aware of such contact beforehand and was briefed on what exchange had taken place afterwards, because that’s the duty of his executive assistant. So Prime Minister Abe must have been aware of Kake Gakuen’s wish to open a new veterinary department under the deregulation project by the latest” in April 2015, Maekawa wrote.