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PM Abe's answers on Kake scandal suggest troubled relationship with the facts

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters after a National Security Council meeting at the prime minister's office on April 14, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has claimed that he knew nothing of plans by Kake Educational Institution, a school operator headed by a "soul mate" from his university days, to open a new veterinary faculty in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, "until Jan. 20, 2017" -- the date the city was confirmed as a national strategy special zone with reduced government regulation. The believability of this statement came under significant stress with the recent revelations of documents stating a then-secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the Kake vet school project "a matter concerning the prime minister" drawn up in 2015.

However, this is not the first time Abe's statements on the Kake affair have seemed to have more quicksand than concrete under their foundations. The Mainichi Shimbun has taken a close look at the prime minister's comments, examining their veracity and shifting content.

Yoshitaka Shindo, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s acting policy committee chief, told an April 15 program on public broadcaster NHK that he "deeply regrets" the entire Kake problem.

The "matter concerning the prime minister" line in the 2015 document, drawn up by an Ehime Prefecture employee, became the intense focus of deliberations in the House of Representatives Budget Committee on April 11, during which Abe repeated that he did not know about the vet school plan until Jan. 20 last year. Opposition members demanded to know, then, whether the Ehime civil servant had lied. Prime Minister Abe did not answer the question directly, reading a prepared text, and once stopped outright to demand opposition lawmakers "stop all the heckling," and in general bled the time away to no great effect.

The fateful phrase at the center of the uproar was quoted as coming from Tadao Yanase, a prime ministerial secretary at the time the memo was written. Furthermore, it has been reported that Abe discussed the vet school plan with Kake head Kotaro Kake over a meal.

Abe first met his "soul mate" Kake when he was studying abroad in university, and the friends have since golfed and dined together often. Abe first said he found out about Kake's vet school plans on Jan. 20, 2017, at a lower house Budget Committee session in July that year, but opposition members pointed to his personal connection with Kake to cast doubt on the claim.

What's more, on June 5, 2017, Abe told a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting that he first learned of the vet school plan when the national strategy special zone application was submitted, on June 4, 2015. The inconsistency was pointed out, and Abe has since corrected his remarks.

How are we to view Abe's statements?

"To say that politicians don't lie is a fantasy," commented Komazawa University associate professor Iwao Osaka. "In a mature democracy, politicians make excuses and evasions to retain power or implement policy. If journalists report the facts and opposition parties and the public respond, it creates a positive tension."

Regarding Prime Minister Abe, Osaka told the Mainichi Shimbun, "He has had the political ability to overcome criticism in the past, and with the news media and opposition as weak as they are, you could say the Japanese people had accepted Abe's predominance." However, "Responding to powerful facts requires an explanation. The administration's response to the current string of facts has been frantic, and we are now at the point in the game where we will see how the public reacts," he continued.

Political psychology expert Kazuhisa Kawakami told the Mainichi that he believes Abe does not pay sufficient heed to making sure what he says is true.

"When I look at his response to North Korean missiles and his explanation of his usage of the word, 'somosomo' (roughly translatable as 'in the first place'), I don't think (Abe) has advisers who can explain the importance of relevant facts," said Kawakami. "There's nothing left of the learning experience he had during his first administration (in 2006-2007), when he made a mistake with the name of a police officer who died on duty," said Kawakami. He was referring to an incident in February 2007 in which Tokyo Metropolitan Police Inspector Kunihiko Miyamoto was killed trying to save a woman from an oncoming train on the Tobu Tojo Line. In his condolences, Prime Minister Abe repeatedly referred to the deceased officer as "Mr. Miyake."

"It appears that, as Abe came to be called 'predominant,' his will to imbue his words with weight and substance has weakened," Kawakami continued. "Prudent politicians who say nothing can't win the public's trust, but if a politician says over and over, 'I will search my memory and investigate,' that person could be seen as a liar. It's the same with (Abe's) ties to Mr. Kake, among other issues. If Abe didn't have anything to feel guilty about, he could very well have avoided opening the wound wider and ended the problem by giving a careful explanation right from the beginning," Kawakami observed.

On the waves of revelations about the Moritomo and Kake favoritism scandals, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai told the news corps on April 10, "I imagine the public is quite fed up by this point, but to be honest, we're fed up, too."

Saitama University professor emeritus Michiko Hasegawa commented, "It's important to think calmly about whether these things (Abe's controversial statements) really are an issue that will sway the national interest this way or that. So far, there is no evidence that the prime minister or his wife (Akie) were involved in the Moritomo and Kake problems. To use a criminal trial as an analogy, there is too little evidence, witness testimony or motive to prove the case, and yet the news media is making a fuss over it. It's become tedious.

"The media is aiming to pull Abe down," Hasegawa added. "There is no need for the prime minister to quit over something on this scale."

Prominent manga artist Mayumi Kurata told the Mainichi, "The only conclusion I can come to is that the prime minister's answers (about Moritomo and Kake) are lies, and that he's being evasive." She added, "The Moritomo and Kake issues are about how political power was used, and scandals that go right to the heart of the administration they are directly linked to the prime minister's personal qualities. The problem is that interest tends to wane if an issue is murky and dragged out. That especially has to be avoided."

(Japanese original by Haruka Udagawa and Satoko Nakagawa, General Digital News Center)

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