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Minister denies Cabinet Office favoritism over Kake's vet school plans

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda answers questions about documents relevant to Kake Educational Institution's vet school plans during a House of Councillors Cabinet Committee on June 16, 2017. (Mainichi)
Minister of State for Regional Revitalization Kozo Yamamoto responds to reporters at the prime minister's office on June 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

The regional revitalization minister has denied that any official at the Cabinet Office mentioned the prime minister's "will" in talks with the education ministry over veterinary school plans by a school corporation run by a friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The explanation contradicts the outcome of a renewed in-house probe that the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry conducted on the scandal.

At a news conference on June 16, Kozo Yamamoto, minister in charge of revitalizing local economies, categorically denied that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved in the approval of Kake Educational Institution's plans to establish a veterinary school in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, designated as a national strategic special zone. The educational institution is run by Kotaro Kake, a friend of the prime minister.

"We are not aware of telling (the education ministry), 'It's the prime minister's will' or 'That's what the top-level of the prime minister's office says.' Nor did the prime minister give such instructions," Yamamoto said.

He made the remarks when he announced the outcome of the Cabinet Office's in-house investigation into documents, in which the Cabinet Office allegedly urged the education ministry to swiftly approve the Kake institution's vet school project.

According to the announcement, the Cabinet Office confirmed four types of documents among 19 documents that the education ministry looked for in its renewed investigation. Moreover, the Cabinet Office confirmed the existence of another four types of documents, totaling eight.

However, the Cabinet Office pointed out that it is difficult to assume that the phrase, "the prime minister's will," which is unusual, was actually mentioned. The office also said no official has any recollection of mentioning "the top-level of the prime minister's office."

In the education ministry's renewed in-house probe, however, an assistant director at the education ministry's Technical Education Division, who compiled relevant documents, claimed that there were remarks to such an effect, referring to these phrases.

Yamamoto also suggested he believes that an education ministry official concerned misunderstood Cabinet Office officials' explanations. Touching on remarks that Prime Minister Abe made in the Council on National Strategic Special Zones to the effect that overall deregulation should be swiftly achieved, Yamamoto said, "It's a question of how (education) ministry officials interpreted these remarks."

The Cabinet Office admitted the existence of an email, in which phrases such as "broader areas" were added to the conditions for approving the establishment of a new veterinary school.

"That's what the sender (of the email) heard from an official in charge. The sender dispatched the email without confirming its content," the Cabinet Office said.

It is important to identify who gave instructions to change the wording, because there are observations that the addition of the phrase, "broader areas," to the conditions for approving the establishment of a new vet school effectively allowed only the Kake institution to open such a school.

Yamamoto told the news conference, "I added the phrase, 'broader areas.'"

The Cabinet Office stated in a report on the outcome of its in-house probe that Yamamoto decided on Nov. 1 last year -- when the email in question was sent -- to add the phrase to the conditions for approving the establishment of a vet school, and concluded that it is impossible that Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda gave the instructions.

Hagiuda told a House of Councillors Cabinet Committee session on June 16, "I never gave such instructions."

Kazunori Yamanoi, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party's Diet Affairs Committee, dismissed the Cabinet Office's explanation as untrustworthy.

"The Cabinet Office released a report on the outcome of the investigation on the (de-facto) last day of Diet deliberations, arguing that its officials have nothing to do with the scandal. It's nothing but a lie. Nobody will believe the outcome of the probe," he told a news conference.

In its in-house investigation, the Cabinet Office questioned nine officials, including the head of the division for promoting revitalization of local economies that is responsible for national strategic special zones. The Cabinet Office also checked not only shared folders in the office's computer system but also the nine individuals' personal folders.

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