Opposition camp lawmakers roared in anger. Stenographers were ordered to stop transcribing. The prime minister accused an opposition leader of lying.
This was the chaotic scene Monday at the Diet during an Upper House Budget Committee session.
The issue in question was a familiar one: The opposition was protesting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s denial that he favored school operator Kake Gakuen — run by his longtime friend Kotaro Kake — for a special deregulation project in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
While Abe has repeatedly rebutted claims of favoritism toward Kake during Diet sessions over the past year, Monday’s denial struck a particular nerve with the opposition.
Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, presented a display board to the audience in the chamber that summarized key points of five documents separately produced in 2015 and 2016 by the Ehime Prefectural Government and the education ministry, plus two testimonies from former education vice minister Kihei Maekawa.
The documents and testimony quoted at least five senior government officials — some of whom are very close to the prime minister — all separately saying they were pushing for the Kake Gakuen project on behalf of Abe.
“The prime minister has said he learned (of Kake Gakuen’s application for deregulation) for the first time on Jan. 20 last year. But did all these people voluntarily take action without first reporting to the prime minister? It’s unrealistic,” Fukuyama said during the session.
“Voters won’t believe it,” he added, prompting Abe to start accusing Fukuyama of fabricating a story and throwing the session into chaos.
“That’s a story you just made up,” Abe told Fukuyama.
Evidently, someone was lying. So who fabricated the story: Fukuyama or Abe?
The Japan Times looked into the contents of the documents, testimony from officials close to the matter, and counterarguments by Abe after the fact.
A 2015 memo produced by Ehime Prefecture officials that quoted Kake Gakuen officials as saying Abe told Kake in a meeting on Feb. 25 of that year that the opening of a veterinarian department at one of Kake’s universities would be “a good idea.” Kake Gakuen later issued a statement saying one of its officials lied about Abe’s remarks during the meeting with Ehime officials.
Records from Ehime Prefecture, produced in April 2015, quoted Tadao Yanase, then an executive assistant to Abe, as telling Ehime officials that the Kake Gakuen project is “the prime minister’s matter.” Ehime officials and Yanase met at the Prime Minister’s Office on April 2 that year, according to the file.
According to parliamentary testimony by Maekawa on July 24 of last year, Hiroto Izumi, a special adviser to Abe, urged him to “quickly promote” the deregulation project, adding he was making the request “on behalf of the prime minister because (Abe) cannot say this.” The meeting took place in September 2016, according to Maekawa. Izumi denied he made the remark.
An undated memo produced by education ministry officials quoted Cabinet Office officials during a meeting on Sept. 26, 2016, as saying, “the highest-level” officials in the Prime Minister’s Office want the education ministry to create the “shortest possible schedule” to open the new veterinarian department in April 2018.
Another education ministry memo quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” is to allow the new veterinarian department to be opened as quickly as possible in Imabari — an apparent reference to the university’s proposal.
A third ministry memo quoted Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda as saying during a meeting on Oct. 21, 2016, that “the prime minister set the deadline at April 2018” for opening the department in the deregulation project.
During the Upper House session, Fukuyama argued that, without instructions from the prime minister, it is unlikely so many different officials would promote the Kake Gakuen project, acting solely on estimations of Abe’s intent.
In response, Abe emphasized that he was promoting deregulation projects in general and not looking to help Kake Gakuen in particular.
The prime minister also pointed out that members of the panel in charge of deregulation projects, including those from the private sector, have said they were not affected by any intention of the prime minister or his aides, and all the processes were transparent.
Opinion polls have suggested most voters don’t buy Abe’s repeated denials over the Kake Gakuen scandal, a fact that Fukuyama pointed out during the session.
Recent polls by major news outlets, including the Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo News, found around 70 to 80 percent of respondents said they don’t trust or are not convinced by Abe’s explanation over his alleged favoritism toward Kake Gakuen.