The Kake and Moritomo scandals and the bureaucracy

Apart from such matters as a possible amendment to the Constitution and whether to go ahead with the next consumption tax hike, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s accountability over the Kake Gakuen and Moritomo Gakuen scandals — which raised suspicions of favoritism in the government’s decision-making processes over the school operators with ties to the prime minister or his wife — looms as an issue in Sunday’s Lower House election. Abe should not forget that voters are still waiting for full explanations of the scandals. He should not consider the job finished if he survives the election.

Also connected with the scandals are questions over the relationship between the Prime Minister’s Office and the bureaucracy. The Abe administration has created a setup to tightly control the personnel affairs of high-ranking government bureaucrats in the form of the Cabinet personnel affairs bureau established within the secretariat of the Prime Minister’s Office. It has raised suspicions that feeling invisible pressure, elite bureaucrats will not go against the intentions of the prime minister or his office — or even try to conform to his will — possibly in excessive ways, without being explicitly told what to do or not to do.

In February, it surfaced that the Finance Ministry had sold a government-owned tract of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, at a steep discount to Moritomo Gakuen, an Osaka-based school operator, for the construction of a new elementary school. The land, which originally had an appraisal value of ¥956 million, was sold at a mere ¥134 million, or a discount of more than ¥800 million. The fact that Abe’s wife, Akie, was listed as honorary principal of the planned school gave rise to suspicions that the government offered the steep discount out of favoritism. The Finance Ministry, which was responsible for the land deal, insisted that the sale was legitimate and that the discount was made to cover the cost of disposing of industrial waste found at the site. The ministry, however, refused to give further explanations by saying that documentary records of the negotiations for the land sale had been destroyed.

In May, suspicions emerged that Abe may have been involved in a government decision to approve the opening of a veterinary medicine department at the Okayama University of Science run by school operator Kake Gakuen, which is headed by a longtime friend of Abe, in a special strategic zone set up in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. One of the documents found in the education ministry quoted a senior official from the Cabinet Office citing “the prime minister’s intent” in pushing the process for launch of a new veterinary science department, which the education ministry has not approved for more than 50 years. Opposition parties charged in the Diet that the prime minister’s intent was behind the January decision by the government panel on special strategic zones to approve Kake Gakuen’s plan.

From the beginning, Abe steadfastly denied that he had a hand in these government decisions. He even said he would resign from his office and the Diet if he, his wife or his office was found to have been involved in the Moritomo land deal.

After the suspicions over the scandals severely dented popular support for his administration, Abe promised in the Diet in July that he would try to give full explanations to clear up the suspicions. However, he has since ignored calls from the opposition to hold an extraordinary Diet session to delve into the issue. And when the new Diet session opened in late September, he dissolved the Lower House at its outset for a snap election. The opposition charged that the prime minister decided to hold the election to forestall further grilling over the scandals.

Abe says — correctly — that no evidence has turned up to prove that he used his influence over the government decisions in either the Moritomo Gakuen or Kake Gakuen cases. If that is indeed true, it’s still possible that someone in the bureaucracy acted — without instructions from the prime minister — to cater to his interest or cited “the prime minister’s intent” to push things through. What the prime minister can do is to dig into the decision-making processes to see whether such acts had taken place.

The tight control that the Prime Minister’s Office under the Abe administration has gained over personnel appointments of senior bureaucrats at each government ministry and agency — through the Cabinet personnel affairs bureau established in 2014 — carries the risk of the Prime Minister’s Office holding lopsidedly strong power over the bureaucracy, possibly affecting impartiality in administrative decision making by officials. The Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen scandals should prompt voters to consider whether, under the system, bureaucrats feel pressure to surmise what top government leaders want and act to fulfill their wishes. Such a situation, if it materialized, could lead to an administration in power monopolizing the government bureaucracy to serve its interests.