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Shinzo Abe’s Kake Gakuen scandal refuses to lie down and die

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Most people believe politicians lie, though the reflexive skepticism with which the current U.S. president’s pronouncements are met is probably exceptional. The secret to successful lying is to never admit to it in the slightest way.

That rule of thumb has been challenged by a development in the neverending scandal associated with an Ehime Prefecture veterinary school the government approved last year. The school is run by Kake Gakuen, a company whose chairman, Kotaro Kake, is suspected of having used his friendship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to get the school opened. Both men insist their relationship had no impact on Kake’s approval, but then, in May, officials of Ehime Prefecture said that an employee of Kake Gakuen told them prior to their acceptance of the school that Abe had discussed the matter with Kake in a meeting that took place on Feb. 25, 2015. Abe, however, claims he only learned about the project in January 2017.

The school official, Yoshihito Watanabe, then backtracked and said there was no meeting and that he lied to Ehime officials, without really explaining why (something about his “mood” at the moment). As Masao Yora pointed out in his May 30 Mainichi Shimbun column, Watanabe’s confession set up an interesting conundrum. He admits to lying and yet the general feeling, at least among the press, is that he is lying about the lie. In order to protect his boss and the prime minister, he falls on his sword, hoping that by doing so the scandal will finally draw to a close.

However, what’s significant about Watanabe’s admission, says Yora, is that eventual approval of the veterinary school may have been based on his lie. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the approval be reviewed? More to the point — and something even Yora doesn’t mention — is that the lie implies that the prime minister’s interest affected the approval process, even though, ethically speaking, it shouldn’t have.

The fact that Kotaro Kake himself held a news conference on June 19 to reinforce the story that there was never a meeting between him and Abe regarding the school only proves that the matter still isn’t settled. The ostensible reason for the event was for Kake to announce his company’s in-house punishment of not only Watanabe, but also himself as Watanabe’s superior, to take responsibility for the lie. However, the news conference simply exacerbated existing doubts about the veracity of Kake’s story.

The timing alone raised eyebrows. Kake called the news conference two hours before it was to take place at the company’s headquarters in Okayama, a day after a major earthquake struck Osaka, thus assuring that any coverage would be buried inside newspapers and on nightly news broadcasts. More significantly, only members of the local press club were invited to attend, locking out major media outlets.

Nevertheless, when TV Asahi heard about the news conference it diverted a crew covering the quake to Okayama. They didn’t get in, but they did make a report that was broadcast on TV Asahi’s Hodo Station that night, showing them standing at the gates of Kake Gakuen asking the school’s PR representative why they couldn’t enter. The person cited time and space limitations, although later in the broadcast TV Asahi aired footage showing that there was plenty of room during the news conference.

The event lasted 25 minutes, and consisted mostly of an explanation of the veterinary school, but during the Q&A session, Kake was visibly uncomfortable. Several times he seemed incapable of maintaining his story, which was that there was “no record” of his discussing the school with Abe on Feb. 25, 2015. One reporter asked him when he talked about the school with the prime minister “for the first time.” Flustered, Kake said he didn’t think he talked about it, and then corrected himself, saying it was after approval. This admission led to a flurry of questions about the details of that discussion, with Kake repeatedly saying, “I can’t remember.”

This exchange was similar to one that took place in the Diet on May 25 between opposition lawmaker Yuko Mori and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami regarding visitor logs that would have indicated if Kake had visited Abe at the prime minister’s residence on the date in question. Officially, these logs don’t exist because apparently they are immediately thrown away for reasons that make no sense to anyone.

Mori pointed out that on May 22, Abe told the Diet that he “confirmed” he hadn’t met Kake on that date, but if there are no logs, how could he confirm such a thing? Nogami replied that they “confirmed there was no log.” The conversation turned even more slapstick when Mori and Nogami sparred over a YouTube video showing Abe being interviewed on a 2012 TV variety show and “bragging” about the detailed records of visitors to the residence. Did the policy change? asked Mori. Nogami said Abe was talking about something else.

Regardless of whether there was a meeting between Abe and Kake three years ago, attempts by the Liberal Democratic Party and Kake to shut the matter down have been inept. During a June 22 Bunka Hoso radio discussion, writer Isao Mori explained how Kake demanded he retract something he wrote about a meeting between Kake officials and the education minister in 2014, providing him with an authorized itinerary of the day he cited in the article as proof.

Mori made the correction, but now he wonders why, if Kake keeps such meticulous records, they can’t provide the press with Kotaro Kake’s schedule for Feb. 25, 2015. If they did that, the scandal would be over in a minute, but all they do is “confirm” that there is no record.

Following its report, Hodo Station commentator Kenji Goto explained that the news conference was probably called to convince the public that the matter has been resolved, but the only thing it verifiably did was further inflame the opposition’s and the media’s suspicions. What the public thinks is anybody’s guess.