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Editorial: Transparent probe needed into vet school approval involving PM Abe

Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Education Minister Hirokazu Matsuno has announced that the ministry did not confirm the existence of a document mentioning Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "will" that backed approval of a new veterinary department at a university run by a school operator whose chairman is a close friend of Abe.

However, suspicions will continue to smolder over whether Abe actually used his influence on the ministry over the establishment of the department, even though the ministry is trying to draw the curtain on the case following an investigation conducted based on the conclusion that such a document does not exist.

During the probe, the ministry interviewed seven officials, including the director general of the Higher Education Bureau and director of the Technical Education Division, while examining data in the division's shared computer folder.

The seven denied any knowledge of the matter, saying, "I've never made such a document," and "I don't remember seeing it." The ministry found no document mentioning "the prime minister's will" over the establishment of the veterinary department by Kake Educational Institution in a national strategic special zone in the folder.

The ministry interviewed each of the seven for only 10 to 30 minutes and the investigation lasted only for half a day.

Matsuno declined to comment on whether the document actually exists, saying, "The education ministry has no capability to conduct a (compulsory) probe," and said the ministry has no intention of conducting an additional investigation.

However, one source close to the ministry has told the Mainichi Shimbun that the document "was compiled by the Technical Education Division." A former House of Representatives member whose name appears in the document says that the paper's description of his talks with the ministry is "99 percent correct."

The document recording talks between the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of national strategic special zones, and the education ministry is supposed to have been created sometime between September and October 2016. In that November, the government approved the Kake Educational Institution's plan to open the veterinary department.

It has been pointed out that bureaucrats at the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs, which was established by the Abe government, tends to surmise the government's intentions in making decisions. This is because the bureau has authority over the appointments of high-ranking bureaucrats at each ministry and agency. Therefore, it is difficult to think that an individual bureau official will proactively provide information disadvantageous to the administration.

The system of national strategic special zones was established by the Abe administration in 2013. An advisory panel chaired by the prime minister approves the establishment of such special zones with the aim of easing regulations enforced by ministries and agencies in areas designated as such to revitalize local economies.

Processes for approving the establishment of special zones tend to go smoothly since the panel is comprised, in principle, of experts selected by the prime minister and the government and of representatives of municipalities aiming to be designated as special zones. Moreover, the possibility cannot be ruled out that a decision on whether to approve the establishment of such a zone will be made arbitrarily.

The head of the Kake Educational Institution is a close friend of Abe. If the Abe government is to press forward with revitalizing local economies through the national strategic special zone system as its key policy, the administration should prove that its policy-making process is transparent by conducting a probe that can convince the public.

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