Education ministry documents point to senior officials close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe citing the “prime minister’s intent” in pushing for a deregulatory measure to approve the opening of a new veterinary medicine department at a university run by a school operator headed by Abe’s longtime friend. Abe rules out any favoritism on his part, and the officials deny (or do not remember) putting such pressure on the ministry. Top officials of the ministry now cast doubts on the credibility of the latest document to emerge — supposedly compiled by its ranks — that implicates Abe’s close aide in the case. The charges that fly over the Kake Gakuen scandal keep going in circles.

The public remains mystified as to what really happened. Nearly three-quarters of respondents in a Kyodo News poll last weekend said they were not convinced by the government’s explanation that its policy over the issue was never distorted by favoritism, while almost 85 percent replied they do not think the relevant facts have been made clear by the government’s probe. The Abe administration should accept the opposition camp’s demand for further Diet inquiry into the case.

In the government’s deregulatory project subsidized by local authorities, the Okayama-based Kake Gakuen, headed by Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake, plans to open a new veterinary medicine department — the first to be launched in more than 50 years — in a university it runs in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, next spring. It has been a long time since the education ministry has approved such an opening on the grounds that the nation has a sufficient supply of veterinarians to meet demand.

A set of documents that supposedly are records of exchanges between the Cabinet Office and the ministry — initially dismissed by the Abe administration as of dubious origin but eventually confirmed by the ministry as authentic — showed that a senior bureaucrat in the Cabinet Office urged the ministry last fall to expedite the process for approving the launch of a new veterinary medicine department by citing “the prime minister’s intent” or “the highest-level (person) at the Prime Minister’s Office.” Former administrative vice education minister Kihei Maekawa, who was the ministry’s top bureaucrat when the alleged exchanges took place, said he also faced similar pressure from the Cabinet Office. But the Cabinet Office said its own probe — released just as the 150-day regular Diet session was about to close — showed that none of its officials made any such remarks to the education ministry.

The latest document, disclosed by the ministry Tuesday, was described as a summary of the remarks made by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda — one of Abe’s closest aides — in his meeting last Oct. 21 with the head of the ministry’s higher education bureau. It quotes Hagiuda as telling the bureau chief that “the prime minister has set a deadline” of opening the new veterinary medicine department on April 2018, and that he would later get the director of the Kake Gakuen secretariat to visit the chief of the education ministry section in charge of the matter. If he had really made that remark, it means the Abe administration had effectively chosen Kake Gakuen as the operator of the new department three months before it was officially chosen for the special deregulation project.

Just like other officials named in the series of documents, Hagiuda flatly denied making the quoted remarks and said that he had “never been given any instructions by Prime Minister Abe concerning Kake Gakuen.” He went on to say that the education ministry apologized to him because the document in question was “extremely inaccurate.” The ministry confirmed that Hagiuda and the bureau chief met on that day but said the document included quotes “that had not been made by Hagiuda,” without specifying which parts of the document were incorrect. It seems odd that the ministry, which did not deny what was written in the earlier-disclosed document, is so confident that the latest file on Hagiuda’s remarks is inaccurate. Is it really possible that the ministry official who compiled the document simply made up the quoted statement?

The discrepancies between what the education ministry documents imply and officials’ explanations suggest that a further probe is merited. Seemingly contrite after his Cabinet’s approval ratings took a nosedive in media polls just after the Diet session ended, Abe said he was “determined to build up efforts to carefully explain” to dispel public distrust of his administration incurred over the Kake Gakuen case. He should stay true to his word.

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