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Education minister confirms existence of docs at center of school favoritism scandal

Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno speaks during a news conference to announce the results of an internal probe into ministry documents, on June 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

Education Minister Hirokazu Matsuno on June 15 announced the results of a renewed probe into internal documents suggesting that the government fast-tracked plans by an educational institution to build a new university veterinary department, confirming the existence of 14 documents -- a disclosure that renews questions of favoritism.

Documents earlier unveiled by opposition lawmakers indicate that the Cabinet Office pressured the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to quickly open a veterinary school planned by Kake Educational Institution, which is headed by a friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a previous probe, the ministry had said it could not confirm the documents' existence.

"We're very sorry that we eventually confirmed the existence of documents that we were unable to confirm previously, from a shared (computer) folder that not been targeted in the investigation, and we take this seriously," Matsuno said.

Following the announcement, the Cabinet Office has decided to conduct its own investigation.

Among the documents whose existence the ministry had been investigating were eight A4-sized documents including a reference to the "will" of the prime minister and another document dated Sept. 26, 2016 that was presented as an outline of a meeting with a Cabinet Office official.

The format of some of the documents that had been presented by opposition lawmakers was said to be different in format from the one Matsuno said had been found.

The renewed in-house probe covered shared folders in the Higher Education Policy Planning Division, Private Education Institution Administration Division and Office for Administrative Reform in addition to one for information on national strategic special zones in the Technical Education Division, which was covered in the earlier probe.

The ministry also interviewed 19 officials to whom relevant emails were sent, in addition to seven officials questioned in the earlier investigation.

While admitting the existence of the 14 documents, Matsuno told the news conference that he has not confirmed whether a reference to "the top level of the prime minister's office" was correct or not.

The education minister neither confirmed nor denied the existence of three other documents, saying the matter could affect the profits of the school corporation.

Moreover, Matsuno said the ministry cannot immediately decide whether to take punitive measures against ministry officials for leaking the documents. "We can't make such a decision at this point because we haven't confirmed how the documents were leaked," he said.

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