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Abe says he can't remember whether he spoke with Kake on phone in Feb. 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responds to questions at a House of Representatives Health, Labor and Welfare committee meeting on May 23, 2018. Sitting at right is Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a lower house committee May 23 that he does not remember if he spoke on the phone in February 2015 with the chairman of a school operator at the center of a cronyism scandal, especially since the prime minister is close friends with the chairman.

The statement came in response to a question posed by Akira Nagatsuma, a House of Representatives lawmaker from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).

Documents submitted to the Diet by the Ehime Prefectural Government on May 21 indicate that Prime Minister Abe met with longtime friend Kotaro Kake, the chairman of the Kake Educational Institution, on Feb. 25, 2015, and responded favorably to Kake's intentions of establishing a new veterinary school in the Ehime Prefecture city of Imabari. Abe has denied meeting with Kake on that date, or anytime close to that date.

"From what I can tell from the prime minister's daily schedule (carried in major newspapers), I did not meet (with Mr. Kake in February 2015). My meals with Mr. Kake have heretofore been made public, and have been carried in the schedule. There is no particular reason for me to hide my meetings with him."

Asked by Nagatsuma about the possibility that he spoke with Kake on the phone around the same time, Abe said, "I can't say whether I spoke to someone on the phone over three years ago. If it's someone that I speak to on a relatively frequent basis, I really don't know."

The prime minister said that he has met with Kake a total of 19 times since the launch of his second Cabinet in December 2012. In addition to 14 occasions that he corroborated using his daily schedule, there were five other occasions that he said he confirmed on Facebook and through other means. Abe added, "Not every meeting I have is made public on the daily schedule."

Asked about the five occasions -- not included in the daily schedule -- on which Abe is said to have met with Kake, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a May 23 press conference, "I will refrain from commenting on them since they were unrelated to the prime minister's public duties."

Meanwhile, former Ehime Prefecture Gov. Moriyuki Kato told reporters at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Tokyo on May 23, "It's hearsay of hearsay. Only officials from Kake Educational Institution know whether or not the (Ehime Prefecture) documents have any credibility. Having a memo doesn't necessarily mean that the content is true."

"The prime minister has had no involvement in the issue at hand," Kato continued. "It is possible that Kake Educational Institution's secretariat, who put in a great effort (to make the vet school a reality), was flaunting its accomplishment to some extent, but that has no bearing on the essence of the issue."

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