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Abe under threat as Kake Gakuen scandal roars back to life

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

A scandal centered on allegations that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe improperly wielded his influence to help a close friend cut through government red tape has roared back to life after seeming to have died down last year.

And this time, Abe appears to be in a far more difficult position. Multiple public documents — produced by different parties — have emerged. Together they boost the credibility of allegations of favoritism benefiting school operator Kake Gakuen.

During a Lower House Budget Committee session on Wednesday, opposition lawmakers made a show of brandishing two documents produced separately in 2015 by the Ehime Prefectural Government and the Imabari Municipal Government.

Opposition lawmakers have long suspected that the prime minister used his influence to help Kake Gakuen — which is chaired by Kotaro Kake, a longtime Abe friend — win approval to open a new veterinary medicine department in a special deregulation zone. Kake Gakuen eventually won approval, opening the department in the city of Imabari earlier this month.

One of the two documents, produced by an Ehime official on April 13, 2015, suggests that Tadao Yanase, then one of Abe’s top secretaries, gave detailed advice during a meeting with Imabari and Ehime officials on April 2 that year at the Prime Minister’s Office. The alleged advice was meant to support Kake Gakuen’s application to open the department, the nation’s first new vet school in 52 years. According to the document, Yanase called Kake Gakuen’s bid “the Prime Minister’s matter.”

Yanase denied the allegations on Tuesday, saying the meeting never took place — as far as he could recall.

But a second document — a record of an official business trip by Imabari city officials — shows that city representatives did visit the Prime Minister’s Office on the day in question to discuss Kake Gakuen’s application, corroborating the version of events in the Ehime Prefecture document. Local officials being invited to the Prime Minister’s Office is considered extremely rare.

Opposition lawmakers have argued that the public records are far more reliable than Yanase’s denials, which rely only on his memory.

The two documents were produced in 2015, long before the scandal exploded and started drawing intense public scrutiny in May last year.

“Logically speaking, either Yanase lied or the Ehime official in charge made up and wrote a comment he didn’t hear. Those are the only possibilities,” Yukio Edano, the head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told Abe during Wednesday’s Diet session. Edano then argued that there was no clear motivation for the Ehime official to have cooked up a false document on a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office.

“From any angle, I can’t help but to conclude Mr. Yanase and the prime minister have lied,” Edano claimed in the Diet on Wednesday.

In response, Abe strongly denied giving instructions to anyone in the government to support Kake Gaken’s bid, including Yanase.

Abe also said he believes Yanase’s denials, and that he is “not in a position to comment” on a document produced by the Ehime Prefectural Government.

“As past Diet questioning clarified, nobody has said they acted under my instruction, and there were no problems anywhere in the whole process,” Abe told Wednesday’s session.

Tatsuo Hatta, head of the Asian Growth Institute and chairman of a working group for deregulation proposals, held a news conference in June last year and said that the group had received no instruction or suggestions from Abe regarding Kake Gakuen.

The processes to approve the application “was legitimate and was not distorted by the intention of any parties at all,” Hatta said.

Other documents have come to light suggesting Abe’s involvement in favoritism toward to the school operator. But no convincing evidence or statements suggesting Abe’s direct involvement emerged last year, and criticism in the Diet lost steam while Cabinet support ratings crept back up.

In May last year, eight documents produced by the education ministry were leaked to media outlets. One quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” is to allow a new department to be opened as quickly as possible in Imabari — an apparent reference to Kake Gakuen’s bid.

Another document quotes the Cabinet Office as saying that “the highest-level” officials in the Prime Minister’s Office want the education ministry to create the “shortest possible schedule” for Kake Gakuen to open the new department in April 2018.

The latest discovery of the Ehime document, first reported by the daily Asahi Shimbun on Tuesday, has re-energized the opposition. The scandal is expected to hit Abe and his Cabinet in media polls, a critical indicator for the prime minister’s arguably populist administration.

Facing a renewed cover-up scandal over Self-Defense Force logs and the Moritomo Gakuen document-tampering scandal involving the Finance Ministry, the Cabinet support rate has already fallen by around 10 percentage points from a month ago.

If the numbers keep falling, Abe’s chances of being re-elected as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be clouded at best. The party’s leadership election is set for September. As the LDP-Komeito coalition holds a supermajority in both houses of the Diet, the president of the LDP is sure to be elected prime minister.

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