The education ministry's about-face in admitting the existence of documents mentioning the prime minister's "will" in connection with plans by a school corporation run by a friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to set up a veterinary school highlights the sloppiness of the ministry's initial investigation.
The ministry announced at a news conference on June 15 that 14 relevant documents on the Kake Educational Institution case were found in the ministry's computer folders despite its earlier announcement that it could not confirm the documents' existence. Relevant documents were saved in a shared folder that had also been examined in an earlier probe and a ministry official who had previously claimed that they had no recollection of the documents admitted to their existence in the renewed probe.
Although education minister Hirokazu Matsuno and a bureaucrat responsible for the fresh probe denied that the ministry covered up the documents, they provided far-fetched explanations of the situation throughout the news conference.
"We're very sorry. We take the outcome seriously," Matsuno told the news conference.
However, Matsuno denied that there were flaws in the ministry's initial investigation into the case. "The previous probe was rational at the time it was conducted," he said.
The 14 documents, whose existence the ministry confirmed in the renewed probe, were saved in a shared folder named, "Veterinary Education," at the ministry's Technical Education Division, among other folders. In the previous probe, the ministry claimed that it only checked the "National Strategic Special Zones" folder within the vet education folder.
With regard to the ministry's failure to find the relevant documents in the initial investigation, Hiroshi Yoshimoto, director-general for policy coordination at the ministry, said, "We thought it was highly likely that we would find the documents in the 'National Strategic Special Zones' folder."
Noting that the titles of the documents were unknown, Yoshimoto suggested the ministry was unable to use the computer's search function to look for the documents. "We had no choice but to open each of 1,000 files one by one to check them," he explained.
An assistant division director, who admitted in the renewed investigation that they compiled some of the documents, had previously denied his involvement. However, they changed their answer "after trying to bring their memories back," according to Yoshimoto.
The assistant director admitted that they remembered having compiled similar documents, according to Yoshimoto. "However, the documents in question include those compiled in a style I usually don't use. I was unable to give a reply based on my vague memories during such a short-term probe," Yoshimoto quoted the assistant director as saying.
Yoshimoto denied that the ministry covered up the relevant documents even though ministry staff confirmed their existence, but he failed to provide a clear-cut explanation. "We hadn't heard of the existence of the documents in a way they were backed up by evidence," he said.
While emphasizing that the 14 documents include personal memoranda used for briefings, Yoshimoto stopped short of confirming whether the ministry provided any explanation to the minister or senior vice minister based on the memoranda. "Such an explanation may have been provided but we can't confirm that," he said.
A senior education ministry official lamented that the ministry's sloppy responses to the matter has worsened its own image.
"The ministry could have previously said the documents exist. However, whether the documents exist has developed into a point of contention in the political world because of the ministry's lukewarm responses to the matter," the official said. "The image of the ministry has been only tarnished."
An education ministry employee who was questioned during the latest probe said, "It's miserable that the ministry has drawn attention from the public in a way like this. I'd like to do more positive work."