TOKYO -- A newfound document has sparked allegations that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe helped a friend getting a new veterinary school approved, giving new life to opposition parties' monthslong probe into the leader.
The leading opposition Democratic Party has obtained what looks to be an internal education ministry report claiming approval for the project was "as the prime minister intends" and implying instructions from "the highest levels of the prime minister's office." Kake Educational Institution -- the university operator planning the veterinary school -- is headed by Kotaro Kake, a friend of Abe's since the prime minister studied in the U.S. years ago.
"Might those close to the prime minister have been granted special treatment?" asked Renho, the Democratic Party's president, in a news conference Thursday. "We have to wonder whether unusual administrative measures were at play," she said. The party has also been pursuing allegations that Abe was involved in the sale of cut-rate public land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga roundly denied the allegations Thursday, insisting there were "absolutely no instructions issued by the prime minister" with regard to the project.
The school is to open in a so-called national strategic special zone designated by the government for deregulation. These zones come under the purview of the Cabinet Office. "It is only natural that regulatory reform should be moved along speedily at the prime minister's instruction," Suga said.
Even if Abe's wishes did play a role in the decision, many in the government doubt that he or other officials could be held legally responsible. "Even if the document is genuine, it likely does not represent a criminal violation of the law," according to a source looking into the matter.
But the opposition maintains Abe is morally, if not legally, responsible. "This is a major issue, and puts the prime minister's job on the line," said Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party.
Officials will occasionally invoke "the prime minister's intention" when settling disputes on issues such as regulatory reform that bring various government entities in conflict, according to a source with experience in Japan's cabinet. The question on the opposition's mind is whether Abe or his associates actually issued instructions that could be seen as conveying such "intention," or whether officials inferred Abe's desires based on ties between the prime minister and Kake.
An education ministry official appeared before a Democratic Party team investigating the matter Thursday, but produced little new information, saying only that the ministry "is still confirming whether the document exists."
The report includes a section purporting to summarize remarks by Koichi Hagiuda, deputy chief cabinet secretary, on the matter. But Hagiuda told a committee of the Diet's lower house Thursday that he had "no memory of such a detailed exchange." Suga said that the document's "credibility is uncertain." But Hirokazu Matsuno, education minister, conceded that "it is possible" such a report was created.
Renho on Thursday walked back another party official's assertion a day earlier that the document was "genuine," saying that "verifying [the document's] authenticity is the government's responsibility." The party is leery of jumping to conclusions. In 2006, Seiji Maehara, leader of the then-Democratic Party of Japan, was forced to resign after the DPJ lit into the ruling Liberal Democratic Party based on what turned out to be a bogus email.