In an about-face, the education minister announced Friday that the investigation into alleged favoritism that benefited a school chain run by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be reopened.
A flurry of media reports this week quoting insiders who backed the authenticity of the leaked documents at the center of the scandal appears to have forced the Cabinet’s hand by generating a public outcry against the government.
The alleged documents, in the form of email attachments, suggest that education officials swayed the approval process for a new veterinary department at a university owned by Kake Gakuen, which is chaired by Abe’s close friend Kotaro Kake.
Japan already has enough veterinary departments and opening a new one requires government approval. Kake Gakuen’s application was the first to be approved in 52 years.
At his Friday news conference, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said that the ministry has faced public criticism that the previous investigation had been insufficient.
“There were really strong opinions coming from the public. We’d like to squarely face this and conduct another investigation,” Matsuno said.
While saying he would try to determine whether the documents leaked actually exist or not, Matsuno said the ministry has not yet decided on how the probe will be conducted.
He also said Abe told him to conduct “a thorough investigation” into the matter.
The scandal didn’t gain much traction until May 25, when Kihei Maekawa, the former administrative vice education minister, held a news conference to vouch for the authenticity of the documents, causing a public sensation.
By Thursday, at least six newspapers and TV stations as well as a weekly magazine had run reports quoting anonymous bureaucrats in the ministry as saying the papers were genuine.
Until Thursday, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had staunchly refused to reopen the probe, insisting the papers were “of unknown origin” and thus not worthy of further attention.
Two of the nine documents, whose existence was first reported by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper last month, quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the highest-level” people at the Prime Minister’s Office wanted to quickly approve an application from Okayama-based Kake Gakuen to open a veterinary department at its university in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
Another paper quoted Cabinet Office officials as saying “the prime minister’s intent” is to approve the new department as quickly as possible.
Last month, the ministry claimed it was unable to find any of the leaked documents after interviewing several of its officials and searching an online folder shared by its Technical Education Division, which apparently drafted them.
But the ministry failed to search the hard drives of the computers used by 31 officials in the division.
Even if Abe did pull a favor for his friend, it would be unlikely to constitute illegal conduct on his part or the Cabinet Office.
But it would severely damage Abe’s credibility and that of his administration because he and the other official involved have repeatedly denied exerting any political influence on Kake Gakuen’s application. The veterinary department is now being touted as a deregulation project.
According to Kyodo News, the idea of reopening the investigation emerged when Abe, Suga and Deputy Chief Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita held a meeting Thursday at the Prime Minister’s Office to discuss how to handle his latest favoritism scandal.