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Japan parliament standoff to end as opposition boycott backfires

Key figure in Abe cronyism scandal to answer questions -- but not under oath

About two-thirds of respondents to a Nikkei poll in April disapproved of Japanese opposition parties' boycott of Diet deliberations.

TOKYO -- The Japanese parliamentary session is set to return to normal on Tuesday after opposition lawmakers, facing a public backlash, agreed to drop stalling tactics in exchange for questioning a key figure in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's favoritism scandal.

The deal, brokered by the lower house speaker on Monday, breaks a 19-day stalemate that began after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party refused to allow sworn testimony by a former Abe aide over a cronyism scandal. The public has grown increasingly critical of the recalcitrant opposition.

The key question is whether the aide, Tadao Yanase, helped facilitate plans by an educational institution run by a friend of Abe's to open a veterinary school. Diet affairs chiefs of the LDP and the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party agreed to have Yanase answer questions on Thursday, but not under oath, and to also call a witness who may be friendlier to Abe.

Abe told political donors on Monday that he intends for the government to "respond to the public's expectations by fully and thoroughly explaining the matter."

"I became a lawmaker to debate matters in the Diet," he said.

Abe has been accused of wielding his influence to grease the wheels for Kake Educational Institution's veterinary school, located in a special deregulatory zone in Ehime Prefecture. Yanase, now vice minister for international affairs at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, appears ready to acknowledge meeting with Ehime government officials in February 2015, which he previously denied. Yanase intends to "respond truthfully if called before the Diet," he told reporters on Monday night.

An Ehime government memorandum that surfaced last month suggests that Yanase gave priority to the project as "a matter concerning the prime minister." That undercuts Abe's claims of having been unaware of the plans early on.

The Constitutional Democrats agreed to end the standoff in part because Yanase's apparent willingness to acknowledge the meetings marked a "shift" in the tide, said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the party's Diet affairs chief. The opposition hopes to make May the "month of getting to the bottom of allegations" related to Kake and other scandals dogging Abe," she said.

The public also appeared cool to the boycott, with 64% deeming it "inappropriate" in a late-April Nikkei poll. Many even within Japan's six main opposition parties began calling to end the standoff during the just-ended Golden Week holidays.

Lower house Speaker Tadamori Oshima worked out the deal by bringing Tsujimoto and the LDP's Hiroshi Moriyama to the table. "The public is extremely critical of the Diet," he told the two. Along with Yanase, officials agreed to call Tatsuo Hatta -- an Osaka University professor emeritus and chair of a working group on Japan's strategic special zones who has spoken in Abe's defense -- before a lower house budget committee on Thursday.

Ruling and opposition lawmakers also agreed to hold two intensive deliberations on the budget at the lower house committee, including one on May 14, with Abe attending both.

Under their agreed-on deal, the Ministry of Finance will submit on May 18 documents pertaining to the discounted sale of public land to Moritomo Gakuen, a nationalist school operator with ties to Abe. Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Forces logs on operations in Iraq, previously thought destroyed but recently unearthed, are also to be submitted to the Diet before June.

Even with the Diet back on track, it will have little time to deliberate on priority legislation related to work reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The current session ends June 20, and with parliamentary committees also debating measures related to gambling addiction and other issues, lawmakers face a tight schedule.

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