TOKYO -- Japanese lawmakers are clashing over whether to have a former education ministry official testify about documents allegedly tying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a new school scandal, a conflict that could throw off the legislature's schedule with just weeks remaining.
Documents obtained by the opposition Democratic Party suggest that the prime minister influenced the government's decision to let Kake Educational Institution, chaired by a friend of Abe, open a veterinary school in a deregulation-friendly strategic special zone. The documents apparently state that the Cabinet Office urged the education ministry to have the school set up within the shortest possible time frame, referring to "the top level of the prime minister's office" and "the will of the prime minister."
Kihei Maekawa, a former vice minister of education, asserted Thursday that such documents "absolutely existed," directly contradicting the government's position. The four main opposition parties are pushing for Maekawa to be called to testify under oath before the Diet.
Japan's constitution states that the Diet chambers may "demand the presence and testimony of witnesses" in relation to investigations into government affairs. A witness who lies under oath could face perjury charges that would carry a jail term of between three months and 10 years.
Though Maekawa has said he will testify if asked, the ruling coalition has no intention of summoning him. The fear is that testimony from Maekawa -- who has repeatedly criticized the Abe administration -- could deal a blow to the government.
The question of whether the papers are real or not is "interesting, but it has nothing to do with the essence of politics," Wataru Takeshita, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Diet affairs committee, said Friday.
"The documents came from an unknown source and lack credibility," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated Friday.
But some in the LDP place weight on the fact that Maekawa -- who was in the ministry until early this year, when he resigned over an unrelated scandal -- insists that the documents exist. "For someone who was at the top of the bureaucracy to make a comment like that has its own significance, its own meaning," said Shigeru Ishiba, minister for revitalizing local economies.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Suga expressed "discomfort" about reports that Maekawa frequented a "date bar" -- places sometimes said to be fronts for prostitution -- and gave money to women there. That the chief cabinet secretary openly talked about and even criticized Maekawa's conduct in his private life suggests that the prime minister's team is in crisis mode.
The complexity of the scandal makes it difficult to tell how the matter will play out in the Diet. The current legislative session ends June 18, giving lawmakers just a few weeks to work on important matters such as legislation to let Emperor Akihito retire. In particular, the opposition is likely to push back hard on contentious conspiracy legislation and will likely use the prospect of Maekawa testifying as a card to play in deliberations. With the clock ticking down, the ruling coalition is in a tough spot.