June 17, 2017 6:58 am JST

Denials shed little light in Abe's Kake school scandal

Cabinet, opposition clash through end of Diet session to no avail

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga addresses an upper house budgetary meeting June 16.

TOKYO -- Despite the discovery of documents supporting claims that Japan's government showed favoritism to a school operator, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his cabinet continue to deny any wrongdoing as the Diet session comes to a close.

The education ministry is investigating 19 documents that are purported to outline how the government pushed to gain approval for the Kake Educational Institution to set up a new veterinary school in a national strategic economic zone. The ministry said Thursday it had located 14 of the documents, after reporting in May that it could not find them.

A meeting on Japan's budget Friday turned its focus to the issue. "We made sure that nobody had suggested Kake's approval was 'in line with the prime minister's wishes,'" said Kozo Yamamoto, the state minister for regional revitalization, referencing a phrase alleged to have been used in one of the documents. Kake is operated by a personal friend of Abe.

"Ministry officials take notes," Tetsuro Fukuyama of the leading-opposition Democratic Party countered. "They wouldn't just make things up."

After Yamamoto acknowledged that the cabinet had no records from its dialogue with the ministry, Fukuyama replied that "this means the education ministry is obviously the more trustworthy source."

Though Abe apologized Friday for how long the probe has taken, he adamantly denied giving special treatment to Kake. The prime minister also stressed the need for a top-down approach on institutional reform, including in strategic zones, in a potential attempt to justify any influence he might have had on the process.

"There is not an ounce of doubt" that Kake received the approval fairly and legally, Abe said. "The decision was likely intended to boost businesses as well," the prime minister added. "I hope that local expectations help revitalization efforts."

The meeting also referenced an email that has newly surfaced in which Koichi Hagiuda, a close aide to Abe, is alleged to have told a cabinet staffer to revise the terms of Kake's approval.

"I have never given such orders, and I'm baffled by this email," Hagiuda said. Yamamoto also questioned the email's authenticity.

But opposition lawmakers were unconvinced. "Most of the public doesn't accept what you're saying," said Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party.

The ruling coalition thinks that by responding to the questions Friday, it has provided enough explanation in the incident. The coalition hopes to put the issue to rest quickly, and will officially end the Diet session Sunday as planned.

Opposition parties want continued discussion in the interim. But Abe's Liberal Democratic Party denied the request, worried about the potential impact on the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election July 2. With the current Diet session effectively over, the opposition has little to offer in exchange for a compromise.

(Nikkei)

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