Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra
School scandals are wiping some of the shine off the Abe administration. This time, the school is Kake Gakuen, a veterinary medicine school being constructed in a national special strategic zone (NSSZ) in Ehime Prefecture.
Having weathered the Moritomo Gakuen scandal earlier this year with barely a blip in the public opinion polls, Abe is clearly hoping to tough it out again. He may not be so lucky this time. The latest opinion polls in Japan are registering rising rates of disapproval of the Abe cabinet and the prime minister himself. Moreover, there are rumblings in the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that potentially bode ill for Abe’s leadership. Two of Abe’s rivals for LDP president — Shigeru Ishiba and Taro Aso — both opposed construction of the vet school.
Even if Abe proves to be the ‘Teflon prime minister’, these two scandals reveal increasingly troubling aspects of the way in which he and other personnel in the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) conduct themselves, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda. Suga dismissed the existence of a document reputedly showing that the ‘highest level of the Kantei was pushing for the selection of Kake Gakuen in the NSSZ’ was a ‘dubious document’ — even though its existence has since been confirmed. Hagiuda was reportedly a key source of additional selection criteria that ensured Kake Gakuen would be approved by the education ministry for construction and once held the position of visiting professor at a Kake Education Institution facility.
The fundamental question posed by the Kake Gakuen scandal is whether Prime Minister Abe used his influence to ensure that the vet school — which is run by a close family friend — was selected for construction. If so, then this would clearly amount to ‘political favours for friends’ and even more significantly to ‘personalisation of public administration’, a term used in Japan to describe the application of improper political influence over administrative decisions. In fact, the Moritomo and Kake Gakuen scandals have disturbingly similar features: both involve family friends of the prime minister and his wife, and both ‘schools’ have consumed tens of millions of yen in government subsidies.
Abe and Suga have strenuously denied any improper political intervention, but the administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid political accountability on the issue. This would have demanded that Kihei Maekawa, the former administrative vice-minister of education, be permitted to testify in the Diet as a sworn witness. Maekawa was the authoritative source of the original claim that there were documents in the education ministry that directly linked Abe to the approval of Kake Gakuen’s construction — including a statement about it being ‘in line with the Prime Minister’s wishes’.
Because providing incorrect sworn testimony carries a penalty of imprisonment, it is not undertaken lightly — yet the Prime Minister refused to consider Maekawa’s offer. For the Abe administration to deny Maekawa this opportunity begs the question: what did Abe have to hide? He appears to view the Diet more as a means to rubber stamp the decisions of his administration rather than as a necessary part of the democratic accountability of his government. As Japanese political writer Takashi Mikuriya observes, ‘he knows that when push comes to shove, he can use his power to stifle opposition’.
While each day brings fresh revelations about education ministry documents and their contents, the Kake Gakuen scandal also reveals the centralised control the administration now exerts over appointments to high-level positions in the bureaucracy since the establishment of the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2014, which triggered so-called ‘Kantei rule’.
The Bureau’s formal head is Koichi Hagiuda, but in practice, according to reports, Suga is the kingpin and personnel decisions are often made by Suga, Hagiuda and other officials meeting in Suga’s office. Inevitably, the changed personnel appointment system and Suga’s skills at using personnel affairs as a means of exerting pressure on Kasumigaseki bureaucrats have impacted how bureaucrats approach their jobs. According to one high-level administrator, they ‘can’t act against the Kantei’s intentions’. As Shunji Taoka writes, it’s a case of ‘bureaucrats now placing top priority on saving their necks and being promoted, and brown-nosing the people in power for that purpose’.
So palpable is the dominance of the Abe Kantei in running Japan’s administration — which has thus far remained largely unchecked by institutional, organisational or political mechanisms — that the Kake Gakuen scandal may be just the ‘reality check’ that it needs.
Aurelia George Mulgan is a Professor at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Her book ‘The Abe Administration and the Rise of the Prime Ministerial Executive’ will be published in July.