TOKYO (AP) — Japan's education minister said Friday he will launch a new investigation into documents that allegedly show Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressured bureaucrats to give preferential treatment to a school run by a friend.
The Kake Educational Institution, run by Abe's friend, was seeking approval for a new veterinary college. Abe's wife, Akie, also served as honorary principal of a kindergarten operated by Kake.
Abe and other top officials have repeatedly questioned the authenticity of the documents, which allegedly indicate that Abe's office pressured government ministries to approve the school's application. Kake had already obtained the city-owned property in Imabari in western Japan for free.
They have rejected demands by opposition lawmakers for testimony in parliament by a retired senior education ministry official, Kihei Maekawa, who recently acknowledged the existence of the documents and of political pressure. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has repeatedly dismissed Maekawa's statements and even criticized his private life in harsh language.
"We accept the people's voice sincerely and will conduct an additional investigation" into the authenticity of the documents, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference. He said an earlier investigation in May found no evidence that the documents existed.
The documents are mostly correspondence between the powerful Cabinet Office and the education ministry. One reportedly described the opening of the veterinary college as "the prime minister's wishes." Another allegedly said "the highest level of the Prime Minister's Office" was asking for quick approval.
The scandal is the second alleging that Abe or people close to him sought to influence the opening of new schools. In an earlier incident, Abe's wife was alleged to have used her influence to arrange a favorable land deal for an ultra-nationalistic Osaka educational group that she was closely associated with.
Abe, a nationalist who took office in 2012 for a second term, has enjoyed solid support ratings despite scandals involving him and some Cabinet ministers. But Friday's reversal by the education minister reflects growing concerns in his own party and public outrage over the government's refusal to clarify whether bureaucrats bent rules to help his friend.
Critics say the Kake school plan, which had been rejected repeatedly in the past because of a lack of demand for more veterinarians, started moving forward after Abe's government eased requirements for veterinary schools.
Opposition leaders welcomed the new investigation and demanded that the government conduct a thorough probe.
"What matters is the quality of the investigation," opposition Democratic Party leader Renho Murata said. "We will be closely watching whether it is predetermined."
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