Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared more contrite than ever — following a steep plunge in the once-high-flying support ratings of his Cabinet and severe setbacks for his Liberal Democratic Party in recent elections. He took the blame for “shortcomings” in his explanations over the Kake Gakuen and other scandals that hurt his administration. He even said it was understandable for voters to suspect favoritism in a government deregulatory measure that involved his longtime friend — though he continued to deny any favoritism took place.
But the ad hoc two-day Diet inquiry held this week did not seem to provide fresh answers to lingering questions over the Kake Gakuen scandal — whether senior officials cited the “prime minister’s intent” in prodding the reluctant education ministry to expedite the process for allowing a university run by Abe’s close friend to open a new veterinary medicine department, or whether the school operator Kake Gakuen, headed by the friend Kotaro Kake, was favored in the selection process.
As he sought to rule out his own involvement in the process, Abe went on to say that he only learned of Kake Gakuen’s bid for opening the new department on Jan. 20, when the bid was officially approved as a project under the government’s special strategic district. The explanation sounds hardly plausible, however, given that Abe and Kake — friends from their school days — dined and played golf together for at least six times over the six months to last December, according to a tally by the opposition camp. Over the same period, Abe also presided over the government’s deregulatory conference that discussed special strategic district projects, including the opening of a new veterinary medicine department. Abe said he was “confused” and “inaccurate” when he earlier told the Diet that he had learned of Kake’s bid before Jan. 20.
The basic structure of the charges over the Kake Gakuen case seems to remain the same. Former Administrative Vice Education Minister Kihei Maekawa, who has testified to the authenticity of education ministry documents (once dismissed by members of the Abe administration as of dubious origin) that Cabinet Office officials cited the “prime minister’s intent” to pressure the ministry last fall to expedite the process for approval of the opening of a new veterinary medicine department, reiterated that he himself was summoned by Abe’s aide Hiroto Izumi and subjected to the same pressure, quoting Izumi as telling the vice minister that he was speaking “on behalf of” the prime minister. Izumi, appearing at the same Lower House Budget Committee session on Monday, denied making such a statement.
Charges that officials quoted the prime minister’s intention to push for the project — and that Kake Gakuen was effectively chosen as operator of the new veterinary medicine department even before bidders were solicited in an ostensibly open process in January — continue to be flatly denied. To determine who’s lying, relevant parties should be summoned to the Diet to testify under oath — a process that the opposition calls for but the ruling coalition rejects.
The statement made by a senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, who is Abe’s former secretary, at the Lower House committee session appears to symbolize the problem that impede efforts to clear up suspicions over the Kake Gakuen scandal. Tadao Yanase said he “does not remember” and “cannot say whether or not I had met” officials from the city of Imabari, Ehime Prefecture — which was chosen as the special district to host the new veterinary medicine department of a university run by Kake Gakuen — at the Prime Minister’s Office in April 2015, when he was serving as a secretary to the prime minister. He said he cannot confirm whether he met the officials because no records were kept of such contacts. Abe himself said entry records at his office from those dates were not kept.
The lack of documentary records of exchanges involving officials — or the destruction of such records — makes it difficult to verify the process leading to administrative decisions. The same problem was seen in the case over the Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which bought government-owned land at a steep discount from its appraised value to build an elementary school with Abe’s wife, Akie, serving as “honorary principal.” The Finance Ministry said the land deal was entirely legitimate, although documentary records of negotiations for the sale have been destroyed, making verification of the process impossible.
Abe’s ruling coalition grudgingly accepted opposition demands for the ad hoc Diet session after the nosedive in approval ratings. What makes the poll results more serious is that many of the respondents who disapprove of Abe’s Cabinet — who now far outnumber those who approve of it — say they cannot trust Abe. That distrust is an indication that voters are not convinced by the Abe administration’s account of the Kake Gakuen case. Abe should realize that contrite remarks alone won’t win back the trust of voters.