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Abe faces Diet grilling over contradictions in comments on Kake vet school

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks with reporters about Kake Educational Institution's establishment of a veterinary school at the prime minister's office in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on May 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will face grilling in the Diet over contradictions that recently surfaced regarding when he learned about a controversial veterinary school plan at the center of a favoritism scandal involving the premier.

According to documents submitted by the Ehime Prefectural Government to the Diet on May 21, Kotaro Kake, head of Kake Educational Institution and a longtime friend of Abe, explained its plan to open a veterinary school in the Ehime Prefecture city of Imabari directly to the prime minister in their meeting in February 2015.

This contradicts with Prime Minister Abe's earlier claim that he learned of the Kake institution's plan in January 2017, almost two years after the meeting allegedly took place.

The focal point in the scandal is whether the Abe government did the Kake institution a favor in its establishment of the veterinary school in Imabari because Kake's close relations with the prime minister. An aide to Prime Minister Abe is quoted as saying that the veterinary school plan is "a matter concerning the prime minister" in yet another Ehime document released earlier, although the aide denies saying so. The school, the veterinary department of Okayama University of Science, opened this past April.

The latest document was compiled in March 2015 under the title of "Consultations with Kake Educational Institution officials over the establishment of a veterinarian development university, etc." It records a meeting held on March 3 between Kake officials and prefectural and municipal government officials.

The document quotes Kake institution officials as mentioning a meeting between its chairman and Prime Minister Abe.

It says the meeting took place for about 15 minutes on Feb. 25, about a week before the consultations. In the meeting, Kake is quoted as explaining to Abe that a veterinary school the institution planned to establish "will strive for education on veterinary medicine that will meet international standards." The document says the prime minister replied by commenting, "The idea of such a new veterinary university is good."

From 2007 through 2014, the Imabari Municipal Government sent a total of 15 applications to the central government to have the city designated a special zone for structural reform to open the way for the establishment of a new veterinary school. All of the applications were rejected.

The city was subsequently designated as a national strategic special zone where the establishment of a new veterinary school would be permitted.

Abe and Kake got acquainted with each other when they were young and have since maintained a close friendship, dining and playing golf together. Opposition parties have grilled the government over whether their close relations have led to the designation of Imabari as such a special zone to open the way for the Kake institution to establish the veterinary school.

In response, Prime Minister Abe told a House of Representatives Budget Committee session in July 2017, "I heard from him that he would like to try to establish a new department or a course, but he never told me specifically that he wanted to open a veterinary department."

The prime minister denied that he was consulted by or received any request from Kake over the veterinary school proposal and then claimed that he learned of the institution's veterinary school plan on Jan. 20, 2017, when the institution was designated as the operator of a new veterinary school.

In other words, Abe argued he was unable to give instructions on or get involved in the process of approving the Kake veterinary school because he did not know the plan in the first place. He then reiterated that the process of the establishment of the school was appropriate.

However, if the content of the new Ehime Prefecture documents is true, it would dismiss the prime minister's claim.

It remains unclear whether the Feb. 25, 2015 meeting between the prime minister and Kake actually took place because it did not appear in news articles on the prime minister's daily schedule.

However, other documents released by the Ehime Prefectural Government mention such a meeting multiple times, while touching on specific documents submitted to the prime minister during the meeting.

Another Ehime document states that a Kake institution official told Tadao Yanase, then executive secretary to Prime Minister Abe in a meeting at the prime minister's office on April 2, 2015, that "we heard the prime minister says he hasn't completed the 'homework' given by the education ministry, and he is worried about the matter."

This suggests the prime minister may have been not only aware of the veterinary school plan but also anxious about its prospects.

Moreover, a February 2015 note shows that then education minister Hakubun Shimomura "has taken a step backward toward the issue because of his relations with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso," who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party parliamentary league on veterinary. The league's stance was against increasing the number of veterinary schools.

Another document shows that while having a meal together, Prime Minister Abe and Kake talked about Shimomura's remark that the Kake institution was "outrageous" because the school operator failed to respond to the government's questions about the veterinary school plan. The document went on to quote the institution secretary-general as saying he had been instructed by the institution chairman to provide a decent explanation to Yanase.

When asked about whether he had meals with Kake around that time during a House of Councillors Budget Committee session on May 14 this year, Prime Minister Abe said he did not dined with Kake between January and April 2015.

Following the submission of the new Ehime document, the prime minister will likely come under pressure to clarify whether he actually had the meetings including dining with Kake.

Extensive lobbying by Kake on Abe administration revealed

The new document describes in detail how Kake Educational Institution earnestly lobbied the prime minister's office and the Cabinet Office over its veterinary school plan between February and April 2015.

According to the document, Kake institution officials exchanged opinions on the plan with prefectural and municipal officials on Feb. 12, 2015. In the meeting, an institution official mentioned an incident in which the Islamic State militant group took a Japanese national hostage, and said, "A meeting between extremely busy Prime Minister Abe and the institution chairman hasn't been realized." Therefore, the institution official explained that it chose to arrange a meeting between then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Kake.

The document says Kato, who currently serves as health, labor and welfare minister, made negative comments on the plan, citing "stiff opposition from the Japan Veterinary Medical Association."

In a meeting with reporters on the night of May 21, Kato admitted having met with Kake saying that he "told me the plan is difficult to achieve," adding that he knew "nothing at all" about the meeting between the prime minister and Kake.

Yanase's name appears in the document recording the Feb. 25, 2015 meeting between Abe and Kake.

Yanase testified before the Diet that he met with Kake institution officials on three occasions between February and June 2015. However, he emphasized that he "never reported the matter to the prime minister or received any instructions."

The new document does not clarify whether Yanase was present at the meeting between the prime minister and Kake.

However, it contains several references to Yanase asking the school operator to submit additional materials, such as, "Following the meeting with the prime minister, the executive secretary (Yanase) has instructed that relevant documents be submitted."

In talks on March 24 of the same year, Yanase reportedly urged Kake institution officials to consult with Yutaka Fujiwara, then deputy head of the Office for Promotion of Regional Revitalization at the Cabinet Office.

A document that an Ehime official submitted to his superior about his business trip to Tokyo is titled "Consultations with the executive secretary to the prime minister" and is sealed by a high-ranking official at the prefecture.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Asahi and Tetsuya Kageyama, Political News Department)

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