Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again denied on Tuesday having met in February 2015 with longtime confidant Kotaro Kake — the head of a school operator at the heart of cronyism allegations involving the prime minister — challenging an account revealed in a newly surfaced document.
The memorandum in question, produced in March 2015 by the Ehime Prefectural Government, was submitted to the Diet on Monday.
“I did not meet Mr. Kake on that day. We went through records at the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday, but couldn’t confirm” such a meeting took place, Abe told reporters.
“As I said in the past in the Diet, he never talked to me about opening a new veterinary department. I myself never brought up the topic, either,” he added.
The Ehime document has deepened suspicions that Abe might have favored Kake Gakuen and helped it to open the new veterinary medicine department at one of its universities in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, as part of a special deregulation project.
The document quoted unidentified Kake Gakuen representatives as telling Ehime officials that Kake had met Abe on Feb. 25, 2015, for 15 minutes. Abe then told Kake that opening the department would be “a good idea,” according to a copy of the memorandum obtained by The Japan Times.
The account in the document runs directly counter to the prime minister’s repeated claims in the Diet that he didn’t know about the school operator’s plans to apply for the deregulation project until the last minute — in January 2017 — when the government formally chose Kake Gakuen as the only recipient of approval for the project.
If the documented account of the meeting were found to be true, that would mean Abe had lied in the Diet and would severely damage his credibility.
The document is also likely to give fresh ammunition to opposition parties, further prolonging the political battle over the allegations of cronyism by Abe and potentially denting his chances of securing re-election in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential race set for September.
The newly found document was among a set of 27 pages discovered by the Ehime Prefectural Government as it re-investigated past contacts with Tadao Yanase, then one of Abe’s executive assistants. Yanase was reported to have met Ehime and Imabari officials in April 2015, at the Prime Minister’s Office, to discuss Kake Gakuen’s plan to apply for approval to participate in the deregulation project.
Abe has also asserted during Diet sessions that he and Kake never discussed the school operator’s plan to apply for deregulation.
Kake Gakuen released a statement Monday night denying that its president had met the prime minister in February 2015.
The new documents also suggested some desperation on the part of Kake Gakuen in the lead-up to Abe’s alleged meeting with his friend.
A memorandum drafted weeks before the meeting reveals that Kake Gakuen officials sought to meet Katsunobu Kato, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, because Abe was too busy dealing with an unfolding hostage crisis involving the Islamic State.
Another memo said “moves have been afoot” for Kake to meet Abe as the school operator was feeling increasingly threatened by a growing “political initiative” favoring a similar bid by the city of Niigata to open a veterinary department under the deregulation project.
Even if allegations of favoritism by Abe were found to be true, that would not constitute any illegality. But it would surely deal a severe blow to his administration, already weakened by a spate of scandals in recent months.
Top executives from main opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party For the People, agreed Tuesday that they will demand that Kake be summoned to the Diet as a sworn witness to provide an explanation. The opposition parties recognized that the surfacing of further documents has “strengthened the possibility that the prime minister has been giving a false statement in the Diet.”
They are also calling for Yanase — who said during unsworn testimony in the Diet earlier this month that he did not help Abe give special treatment to Kake — to be summoned again, this time as a sworn witness.
“We have come to a significant turning point where the prime minister’s resignation is being called for,” said Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the CDP.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga hewed to Abe’s line, saying that the government had been unable to locate any visitor records at the Prime Minster’s Office relating to the alleged meeting between Abe and Kake in February 2015.
“Our visitor records are customarily disposed of once deemed unnecessary, and our investigation found they have already been discarded,” Suga said.
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the LDP, said he has “complete trust” in Abe’s words and vowed to support him.
Opposition lawmakers have long suspected that Kake Gakuen’s successful bid last year was a result of Abe’s decadeslong friendship with Kake.
The close ties, they maintain, may have prompted Abe to somehow exert his influence, tilting the official decision-making process in Kake’s favor.