Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi confirmed Tuesday that lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party made enquiries to his ministry about a school lecture given by a former top bureaucrat who has accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of favoritism, but he denied that this amounted to political interference.
Hayashi told a news conference that the lawmakers’ actions were not behind the ministry’s subsequent decision to ask the education board in Nagoya — which overseas the junior high school where the lecture took place last month — questions about the event’s purpose and content.
The lecturer, Kihei Maekawa, alleged last year that Abe’s office influenced a government decision to approve a new veterinary department at a university run by one of the prime minister’s close friends.
According to Hayashi, Masaaki Akaike and Yoshitaka Ikeda, of the LDP’s education policy division, made several enquiries to the ministry about Maekawa’s lecture after Ikeda, who hails from Nagoya, saw a local newspaper report on the event.
Hayashi also said ministry staff showed Ikeda the questions they planned to send by email to the board of education in Nagoya, and that the staff member’s made some changes to the questions based on Ikeda’s input.
But he said the lawmakers’ enquiries “had no influence on the ministry’s decision that it was necessary to confirm the facts.”
“It’s important to listen to suggestions from lawmakers, be they from the ruling parties or the opposition. The responsibility for the final decision lies with the government,” Hayashi said.
At an Upper House Budget Committee session later on Tuesday, the minister conceded that the emailed questions “could have, overall, potentially applied pressure” on the Nagoya education board.
Members of six opposition parties condemned the LDP lawmakers’ involvement, agreeing that Akaike and Ikeda should be summoned to the Diet to give unsworn testimony on the issue.
“We can’t look past this. We want them to explain what they intended to do by lobbying (the ministry),” Kiyomi Tsujimoto, of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters after the meeting.
“The majority of the public think the enquiries themselves were a major pressure,” Kibo no To (Party of Hope) lawmaker Kenta Izumi said.
Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura criticized the LDP lawmakers’ involvement, telling reporters the city will fully cooperate with efforts to examine the issue in the Diet.
According to Hidenori Fujita, a professor of education at Kyoei University, the enquiries amounted to “illegitimate interference, which will warp education if it goes unchallenged.”
Akaike confirmed to reporters at the LDP’s headquarters in Tokyo that he made enquiries to the ministry, but denied that they served as a form of pressure on the school board.
“I was confirming the facts about whether it was alright for someone who has violated the law to stand up and teach,” Akaike said, referring to the illegal practices in the ministry that prompted Maekawa to resign from its top bureaucrat post of vice minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology.
Maekawa quit in January last year after being disciplined over his key role in the systematic practice of amakudari, or helping bureaucrats land post-retirement jobs at entities supervised by the ministry.
Later that year, he alleged as a witness in the Diet that the Prime Minister’s Office worked “behind the scenes” to influence the ministry’s decision to approve the establishment by the Kake Educational Institution, run by Abe’s friend Kotaro Kake, of Japan’s first new vet school in half a century in a special economic zone.
Matters relating to the government-designated special economic zones are supposed to be handled by the Cabinet Office, not the Prime Minister’s Office.
The Kake affair saw a decline in public support for Abe, as did a separate cronyism scandal involving the sale of state land in Osaka at a heavily discounted price to Moritomo Gakuen, a school operator with ties to Abe’s wife Akie.