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Opposition grills gov't over Kake vet school approval, calling it non-qualified

The construction site of a Kake Educational Institution veterinary school is seen in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, on Nov. 9, 2017. (Mainichi)

Ruling and opposition lawmakers clashed over the government's controversial approval of Kake Educational Institution's plan to open the veterinary department at the center of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's favoritism scandal on Nov. 15, during the first Diet meeting since the green light for the project was given.

At a session of the House of Representatives Committee on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the government justified its approval process for the vet school project, with an official saying, "We went through adequate procedures in accordance with predetermined rules." However, opposition parties blasted the approval process, claiming that the Kake institution's project did not meet the conditions for the establishment of a new vet school in a national strategic special zone.

Seiji Osaka of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan asked if Prime Minister Abe or the prime minister's office influenced the approval process as the Kake institution is headed by Abe's close friend, Kotaro Kake. In response, education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said, "The prime minister didn't give any instructions to the education ministry."

Osaka also raised questions about the grounds on which the government determined that the Kake institution's project fulfilled the four conditions for opening a vet department in a national strategic special zone, which were adopted by the Abe Cabinet in June 2015. "There's no way Kake Educational Institution fulfills those four conditions. I'm asking who made the decision and when," Osaka said.

Yasumasa Nagasaka, parliamentary vice-minister of the Cabinet Office, which is in charge of national strategic special zones, responded that the government confirmed the project's "sufficiency" with regard to the four conditions at a national strategic special zone council meeting, as well as on other occasions.

"The project was approved at a national strategic special zone council meeting on Nov. 9 last year, which was attended by the education minister and the agricultural minister," Nagasaka said. However, he stopped short of clarifying the specific grounds for the decision. Furthermore, the Nov. 9, 2016 meeting only saw a decision made for deregulations so a new vet school could be established, and it was only in January this year that the Kake institution came forward to be the operator of a vet school and concrete plans for the project were drawn up.

"You are not answering my question," Osaka said to Nagasaka. Stuck for an answer, Nagasaka consulted with bureaucrats sitting behind him.

The four conditions are: 1) development of a concrete veterinarian education plan that does not already exist; 2) evident demand for veterinarians in new fields such as the life sciences; 3) difficulty among existing institutions to meet this demand 4) consideration of supply and demand for veterinarians in recent years from a nationwide perspective.

The lower house committee session was repeatedly suspended due to the government's failure to provide answers to the opposition parties' relentless grilling over whether the Kake vet school project satisfied those four prerequisites. During Osaka's 40-minute question time, the session was suspended a total of 10 times.

Masato Imai of the Party of Hope slammed education minister Hayashi for giving the green light to the Kake vet school project upon recommendation by the education ministry's Council for University Chartering and School Juridical Person -- before any Diet deliberations were held on the matter. Imai went on to argue that the ministry panel also should have screened the Kake institution's project for the four conditions and demanded that the panel meeting minutes be disclosed. Hayashi, however, declined the request, saying, "Making individual panel members' remarks public could hinder fair discussions."

Another Party of Hope legislator, Kazunori Yamanoi, pointed out the openly close relationship between Prime Minister Abe and Kake institution head Kotaro Kake by showing a photo of them together and mentioning that Abe and Kake shared dining and golf sessions on 14 occasions since Abe returned to power in 2012. "Would it be possible for the government to rescind its approval of the vet school project if the approval process was found to have been unfair?" Yamanoi asked. Education minister Hayashi, however, refused to respond to the question, saying, "I'd like to refrain from answering a hypothetical question."

Amid the angry voices of opposition party lawmakers, the committee session ended after about four hours, with the government only repeating its position that the Kake institution satisfied the necessary conditions without providing any clear-cut grounds.

Meanwhile, a question and answer session over the Kake vet school issue that was scheduled to be held at the House of Councillors Committee on Education, Culture and Science on Nov. 16 is expected to be postponed, as the upper house caucus of the opposition Democratic Party told its ruling Liberal Democratic Party counterpart that the session should be held after the newly reappointed Cabinet ministers make their policy speeches.

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