A document that has just surfaced in a scandal involving an educational institution headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggests Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda pressed the education ministry to quickly approve plans to set up a veterinary school. The discovery deals a blow to the heart of the Abe administration amid suspicions of favoritism.
Hagiuda has strongly denied involvement, but the discovery has nevertheless disrupted Abe's aim to extinguish the smoldering scandal by bringing the latest Diet session to a close.
The shocking content of the latest document is a step beyond that of previous papers that have surfaced in the scandal. It indicates that Hagiuda, an aide to the prime minister, conveyed Abe's will on the school project to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The government's explanations seem lame, leaving it a step behind events.
On the evening of June 20, state minister of education Hiroyuki Yoshiie, who met with Hagiuda at the prime minister's office, told reporters, "I had a deep feeling that there was a tendency (among education ministry bureaucrats) to put Mr. Hagiuda's name out there, and I told him, 'Sorry for the trouble.'" Yoshiie thus dangled in front of reporters the prospect of bureaucrats having used the name of Hagiuda, who had influence in educational administration, without his permission. Hagiuda himself stated in a written comment, "If my name was used for coordination within the ministry, it's extremely regrettable."
During a news conference on June 19, Abe, aware of public criticism over the scandal, adopted a low-key attitude, stating, "I will sincerely fulfill my duty to provide an explanation," but then attempted to justify the new establishment of the veterinary department. The government and ruling coalition, which had overcome a backlash against the enactment of security legislation in the past, appeared to underrate the impact of the scandal, saying that they could recover from the steep slide in the Cabinet approval rating once the situation calmed down.
The following day, however, the new document surfaced, blowing away all talk of a sure-fire recovery. Concerns about the negative impact of the scandal on the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election also intensified. When asked why documents were surfacing at the education ministry one after another, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga appeared irked and said, "I'd like to ask that myself."
Hagiuda's name had been a point of discussion with each new discovery. In announcing the results of a renewed investigation into internal documents on June 15, the ministry said it could not confirm the existence of any records indicating that Hagiuda was involved in coordination with government ministries and agencies over the veterinary department plan. At the same time, however, it released an email indicating that Hagiuda had ordered amendments to a document setting new conditions for opening a veterinary school. The new conditions stated that this would be permitted "only in an area where veterinary vocational schools do not already exist, in the broader area." The latest document follows on from this email.
To Abe, Hagiuda is a sworn friend who sympathized with him over the North Korean abduction issue from the time Hagiuda was a Hachioji Municipal Assembly member.
During a meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee on June 16, the state minister in charge of regional revitalization, Kozo Yamamoto, said that he was the one who had made the corrections to the new conditions for setting up a vet school, and shifted the responsibility for the email, saying that it was reported to the education ministry by a ministry worker on temporary assignment at the Cabinet Office. During the same meeting, Hagiuda denied having given any orders.
However, the latest document records Hagiuda as saying that the prime minister's office was determined to move the new vet school plan ahead and that the prime minister had set a deadline of April 2018 for the opening of the school. Not only does the document give the public the impression that an aide to the prime minister flashed his authority and put pressure on the education ministry, but the related suspicions could shake the Abe administration.
Education minister Hirokazu Matsuno has already admitted that Hagiuda met officials from the education ministry on the date stated in the newly uncovered document. The government's claims are not sufficiently persuasive to clear away the physical evidence of the documents.
On June 20, Abe maintained a stern demeanor at a meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party Board, stating, "There's a saying that a castle is built in three years and falls in a day. We will brace ourselves and carry on." Suga, however, said the prime minister had no intention of holding another news conference. He suggested that the explanations of Matsuno and Yamamoto are sufficient -- a stance far removed from the prime minister's stated "duty to provide an explanation with sincerity."
New criticism has arisen of a weak side aspect of Abe, who enjoyed rounds of golf and dining with the director of the educational institution that has applied to set up the veterinary school in the national strategic special economic zone, who happens to be his close friend. One member of his ruling coalition expressed a sense of crisis, stating, "This is rust that has come out of Mr. Abe. If he keeps taking public opinion lightly, then negative impressions could grow."