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The Abe School of Corruption

SNA (Tokyo) — Shinzo Abe’s commitment to a conservative ideology and to the legacy of his family has been apparent all through his life, but the recent hints that he may be personally corrupt are something new. The tactics that Abe and his lieutenants have been employing to defend themselves against a pair of scandals regarding schools are despicable. This is a matter that goes beyond conservative ideology and into a realm that calls into question Abe’s commitment to the fundamental bases of democratic government.

Moritomo Gakuen chief Yasunori Kagoike was a major fan of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who wanted to name his Osaka-based nationalist elementary school after the Japanese leader. He even convinced First Lady Akie Abe to serve as Honorary Principal, and made kindergarten-age children pledge loyalty to Abe. Journalists rightly became suspicious when the local branch of the Ministry of Finance sold land to Moritomo Gakuen far below market price and perhaps close to free-of-charge when all factors are accounted for.

The Ministry of Finance claimed to have quickly disposed of all documents relating to these suspicious land sale negotiations. It was rather farfetched to believe the Japanese bureaucracy was in the habit of quickly destroying its own financial records, but it was, of course, quite politically convenient as well. (The Ministry of Defense, too, had recently claimed to “lose” politically inconvenient documents related to the SDF mission in South Sudan until it was later exposed as a cover-up—for which no one was punished.)

Principal Kagoike Turns on the Prime Minister

The crescendo of the story came on March 23, 2017, when Moritomo Gakuen Principal Kagoike, understanding that he was being sized up for the role of political fall guy, turned on the prime minister in sworn Diet testimony and directly accused First Lady Akie Abe of personally handing him a large cash donation which she said was from Shinzo Abe himself (see video link at bottom of page). It was a stunning accusation made under oath, with ruling party lawmakers repeatedly warning Kagoike that he could be charged with a crime if he told any lies.

The opposition parties made the logical next demand: First Lady Akie Abe must also testify in the Diet, under oath, in order to get to the bottom of the issue. Did Kagoike perjure himself? Or did the First Lady really make such a donation?

To date, we still don’t know the answer. The First Lady issued a denial through a Facebook post, and the Abe government insisted that was the end of the matter. Akie Abe was never put under oath and never subjected to any face-to-face questioning by any investigator. The ruling party and its allies in Osaka proceeded as if it were proven that Principal Kagoike had lied in his sworn testimony, but the fact is that the truth has yet to be convincingly elucidated.

Opinion polls showed that most of the Japanese public doubted the Abe government’s explanations, but at the same time the overall approval rating of the Cabinet was hardly affected. Presumably this contradiction is best explained by the public’s total lack of faith in the opposition parties’ ability to form a stable government.

However, the overall effect was that the Abe government was feeling politically secure enough that they could simply stonewall any further investigation. Kagoike’s sworn testimony was denounced as a lie, and that was that.

Kake Gakuen Scandal Erupts

Then the Kake Gakuen scandal blew up in late May. This was a remarkably similar case whose central figure is Kotaro Kake, one of Shinzo Abe’s closest personal friends and also the owner of an educational business group. In this case, Kake had received what appeared to be some very favorable treatment from the Ministry of Education in particular.

This ministry had authorized Kake Gakuen to open a veterinary department within its university despite the fact that the ministry’s policy for decades had been that no such school was needed. Moreover, the local government in Shikoku where the school was to be located offered the land entirely free of charge, which was not an ordinary practice.

Independent journalists had been digging for weeks, but it was the Asahi Shimbun that discovered the smoking gun—documents from within the Ministry of Education showing that ministry bureaucrats had been told by Cabinet Office officials to approve the school’s application because “it was the prime minister’s will.” Among the Cabinet Office officials who seem to have been involved in applying the pressure is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, a key aide to the prime minister who has also spent vacation time with Kotaro Kake (see photo at top of page). In other words, the corruption was documented by Ministry of Education officials themselves.

Confronted by such devastating evidence of wrongdoing, the Abe government lied, as they had apparently become quite comfortable about doing in such cases. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who often plays the role of Abe government enforcer, denounced the documents as likely forgeries. The Ministry of Education quickly followed up with an investigation which concluded—surprise!—that the existence of the documents “could not be confirmed.” It was the third time in a row that an Abe ministry had conveniently “lost” politically compromising documents when they were obliged to share them with Diet lawmakers.

Abe and his lieutenants probably thought that they had checkmated the Kake Gakuen scandal just as they had done with the Moritomo Gakuen scandal. In the prior case, it was Yasunori Kagoike’s word against Akie Abe’s word, and that was the end of it. This time it was an accusation from the Asahi Shimbun set against a de facto denial from the Ministry of Education.

Top Bureaucrat Tells All

But then something remarkable occurred. Kihei Maekawa, the recently retired head of the Ministry of Education bureaucracy, held a press conference in which he stated that he had seen the documents with his own eyes at the time, and that they had indeed circulated within the ministry.

It was a morally devastating revelation, but the Abe government, secured by its supermajorities in both houses of the Diet and a compliant judiciary, refused demands to allow Kihei Maekawa to testify in the Diet about his experiences as the ministry’s top bureaucrat. They held to the outrageous position that he had nothing to say that was of any material relevance to the case.

Stooping to a much lower level, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which is openly allied to Prime Minister Abe, published a salacious report about Maekawa’s having visited singles bars in order to meet young women. The Abe government clearly approved of this attempt to slander a lifelong public official who had dared to tell a truth that they had desperately wanted to suppress. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga himself used these Yomiuri Shimbun reports to publicly censure Maekawa.

The Abe regime was now engaged in the dirtiest kind of politics—trying to destroy anyone who spoke up against them, even if the bearer of the unwanted information was by all appearances an honest and decent man.

Running Out the Clock

With the public not entirely fooled by the Abe government’s hardball tactics, political pressure continued to be applied, eventually forcing a partial retreat. The Ministry of Education was shamed into “reopening the investigation” and then “discovering” that the documents were real (which is something that most of the senior ministry bureaucrats must have known all along).

The new tactic was to run out the clock.

With the Ordinary Diet Session coming to a close today, Prime Minister Abe and his ministers have several months of respite from face-to-face opposition party grilling. Abe is no doubt hoping that as the weeks pass, so will the emotion. He is also planning a Cabinet reshuffle that will make it more difficult to pursue individual ministers. By the time the Diet reopens in the autumn, Abe’s team apparently reckons that the general public will have altogether lost interest in seeing “Kake Gakuen” in their newspaper headlines, whatever the truth may be.

The Abe government’s electoral dominance over the opposition parties has transformed from an impressively stable administration into a veritable school of corruption.