Many questions remain unanswered over the government’s decision to allow a school operator headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to open a new veterinary medicine department at a university it runs. A former top bureaucrat in the education ministry, which had not authorized opening of such a department for more than half a century on the grounds that the nation has enough veterinarians, says his ministry was pressured by senior officials citing “the prime minister’s intention” to expedite approval for the project. The Abe administration flatly denies adding any such pressure and refuses to look any further into the allegations.

The Diet needs to step in to expose what really happened with the decision, over which Kihei Maekawa, a former administrative vice education minister, claims that the administrative process was “distorted” by intervention from the Cabinet Office. The administration is trying to discredit Maekawa, saying he had just resigned as vice minister to take the blame for the amakudari scandal, in which his ministry unlawfully arranged post-retirement jobs for its officials. The veracity of his words should be verified by summoning him to testify in the Diet, but Abe’s ruling coalition is rejecting the opposition demands to do so, even though Maekawa says he is willing.

Kake Gakuen (Kake Education Institution), whose chairman, Kotaro Kake, is Abe’s longtime friend, plans to open the veterinary medicine department at its Okayama University of Science next spring at a site in the government’s special strategic zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. The land for the site, which the city had bought for ¥3.68 billion, has been offered for free for the department, and the city and the prefecture will subsidize its construction for up to ¥9.6 billion. Last year, the Abe administration took the initiative to review the education ministry’s long-standing restrictions on opening new veterinary medicine departments at universities as part of its regulatory reforms, and in January gave the go-ahead for the plan by Kake Gakuen.

A set of documents — exposed in a media report and then taken up by the opposition in the Diet — reportedly describes exchanges between officials of the Cabinet Office and the education ministry last year over the opening of a new veterinary medicine department. Believed to have been compiled by education ministry officials, the documents quote the Cabinet Office as saying that the push to expedite approval for the new department represents the words at “the highest level” in the Prime Minister’s Office and “the prime minister’s intention.”

Officials of the Abe administration dismissed the credibility of the documents, and the education ministry said it could not find matching documents at its disposal. But last week, Maekawa, who was vice minister when the exchanges are said to have taken place, said he was shown the documents last fall and vouched for their authenticity. He went on to say that Abe’s special assistant called him up last September to urge him to speed up the approval process, and quoted the assistant as saying that “I’m telling you this because the prime minister himself cannot say it.” The assistant, Hiroto Izumi, says he “does not remember” making such a statement.

It is not at all clear what role, if any, Abe played in giving the go-ahead for the subsidized opening of a new department at a university run by Kake Gakuen — for which he admitted serving as a board member “for several years” after he was elected to the Diet in 1993. Abe denies that any pressure was exerted either in the process of deregulation to pave way for opening of a veterinary medicine department or in the selection of Kake Gakuen as the operator, “which were adequately implemented in accordance with relevant laws.”

The “prime minister’s intention” mentioned in the documents in question could mean that officials, aware of Abe’s close ties with Kake, used his name to push for the project without specific orders from the prime minister, or that the officials used the prime minister’s authority to override the education ministry’s hesitancy to push for the project. The point is that the process needs to be scrutinized — against the claim that it had been “distorted” — to dispel any suspicions that favoritism played a role in the decision.

An Osaka-based school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, for whom Abe’s wife Akie served as “honorary principal” of an elementary school it was planning to open, had been given a steep discount in the sale of government-owned land for the construction of the school. Explanations given by the government over the discounted land sale have been less than convincing. The Diet needs to seek clear answers to the questions that continue to surround the Kake Gakuen issue.

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