The opposition Democratic Party has raised suspicions that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may have been involved in a government decision to approve the subsidized opening of a new department at a university run by a school operator that is headed by his close friend, citing documents it obtained that reportedly show officials discussing “the prime minister’s intent” behind the project.

The Abe administration has rejected the suspicion as unfounded. But instead of merely dismissing the credibility of the documents, the administration should fulfill its duty of accountability by clearing up any suspicions surrounding the project, since it would indeed be a serious problem if personal favoritism played any role in government policy.

The suspicion surrounding the Okayama-based Kake Education Institution (Kake Gakuen) was raised following months of scrutiny over the ties between Abe’s wife and Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator in Osaka that bought a tract of state-owned land at a drastically reduced price to build a new elementary school. Abe has denied the involvement of himself or his wife in the questionable land deal.

The DP says the documents in question record exchanges between the education ministry and the Cabinet Office with regard to a plan by Kake Gakuen to open a veterinary medicine department at the Okayama University of Science, which the school operator runs, in a special strategic zone set up in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. Special strategic zones, in which deregulation is expedited to spur private-sector investments, constitute a part of the Abe administration’s economic growth strategy. Unlike typical official documents, the documents in question reportedly do not name who made each of the specific remarks or who compiled the papers.

One document quotes the Cabinet Office as saying that a person “at the highest level” at the Prime Minister’s Office requests that the education ministry work out the shortest possible schedule on the premise that the department would be opened in April 2018. Another document cites the Cabinet Office as saying that it is pushing the process on the premise that deregulation will be carried out in the shortest period of time and that it understands this is “the prime minister’s intention.” The documents can be taken to mean that the Cabinet Office was prodding the education ministry to quickly approve Kake Gakuen’s plan.

The opening of new veterinary medicine departments at universities in Japan has not materialized for decades as the Japan Veterinary Medical Association opposed it on the grounds that the nation has a sufficient supply of veterinarians. That changed when the Abe administration, in its deregulation plan, included weighing the opening of a new veterinary medicine department in a special strategic zone in June 2015. After an application period of just eight days, the government in January chose Kake Gakuen — the sole applicant — as the operator of the new department to be opened in Imabari. In March, the municipal assembly of Imabari decided to give the land on which to build the new department — which the city had bought for ¥3.68 billion — to Kake Gakuen free of charge and provide ¥9.6 billion to subsidize the construction cost.

Abe, who has remained close friends with Kake Gakuen Chairman Kotaro Kake since they met while studying in the United States in the 1970s and gets together with him several times a year to play golf and have dinner, told the Diet that he had never been approached or applied pressure concerning the school operator’s plan to open a veterinary medicine department at its university. After a DP lawmaker cited the documents in the Diet last week, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there is no need for the government to answer questions about such documents, noting that their meaning is unclear and it’s not even known who wrote them.

However, at least one person named in the documents says that what’s written about him there is “99 percent correct.” Naoto Kitamura, a former Lower House member and an adviser to the Japan Veterinary Medical Association, has verified the part in the documents that says he talked with regional revitalization minister Kozo Yamamoto, who is also in charge of special strategic zones, and former defense chief Shigeru Ishiba. He said he regularly provided relevant information to the Technical Education Division of the education ministry’s Higher Education Bureau, adding that he believes the document about him was a memo compiled by a ministry official based on such information.

According to the DP lawmaker, parts of the documents show that as the education ministry thought it would be difficult to open the new department in April 2018, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said the government should aim at opening it in April 2019 instead. Asked about the reported exchange in the Diet last week, Matsuno admitted that he remembered making a similar statement with his officials. It would be too early to dismiss the credibility of the documents out of hand.

The education ministry says it has not been able to find matching documents in their possession, after questioning seven high-ranking officials and examining folders in the ministry’s computer system shared by relevant sections. However, it has not examined files contained in the personal computers of individual ministry workers. Given the circumstances, the government needs to provide full explanations about the process that led to the opening of a new veterinary medicine department and the choice of Kake Gakuin as its operator.

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