The response by government officials to favoritism allegations during out-of-session meetings of the Diet on July 24 and 25 have raised questions about their sincerity toward the public.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe politely answered questions relating to a plan by a school corporation run by a close friend of his to set up a veterinary school -- unlike during the regular Diet session that closed in June.
"If he had behaved that way from the beginning, the approval rating for his Cabinet wouldn't have declined to such a low level," said one ruling coalition member. This view is shared by many politicians within the governing bloc.
Still, during the meetings, government officials repeated such phrases as "I don't recall..." and "There is no record of that." Moreover, when confronted by assertions from those who recorded government officials' statements on the issue, the officials dismissed them as being "under the wrong impression." Such explanations do little to convince the general public.
Abe claims that he learned of Kake Educational Institution's plan to set up a veterinary school in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture -- an area designated as a national strategic special zone -- on Jan. 20, 2017. However, even if the general public trusts his claim, it does not dispel suspicions that the Cabinet Office pressured the education ministry to approve the vet school plan by considering Abe's relations with the Kake institution head.
The ruling bloc justified reform of "bedrock regulations" by citing Ehime Gov. Moriyuki Kado's mention of his longstanding struggle to invite school operators to set up a veterinary school in the prefecture. However, the issue at hand is not whether the deregulation policy was appropriate, but whether the prime minister gave his close friend any special treatment.
Abe's supporters have commented, "It's a shame that the approval rating for the Abe Cabinet has declined even though the prime minister hasn't made any policy mistakes." But surely the prime minister is not the sole figure who caused a loss of public confidence over the Kake case.
Abe's predominance has given rise to a culture in which bureaucrats and politicians who defend the administration by forgetting what is unfavorable to the government, discarding unfavorable documents and hiding unfavorable information, are highly appreciated. Such a culture has damaged the public's trust in politics as a whole.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has suggested that the government will review the way official documents are managed. However, if this were to result in officials attempting to decrease the number of official documents that should be preserved and disclosed and limiting their scope, no member of the general public would trust the government.
Information disclosure and accountability form the basis of democracy. If the current situation continues, it could create serious problems for Japan's democracy. The government should promptly convene an extraordinary Diet session under the Constitution, as demanded by opposition parties, to provide a careful and detailed explanation of the Kake case. (By Takahiro Hirata, Senior Writer, Political News Department)