TOKYO — Grilled by opposition lawmakers as approval ratings for his Cabinet sink, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday repeated his denials that he misused his influence to help a friend in a growing favoritism scandal.
The questioning outside parliament’s ordinary session, a rare occurrence, underscores the ruling Liberal Democrat party’s eagerness to regain public trust.
Abe is expected to reshuffle his Cabinet soon, after seeing public approval sink following various scandals and his party’s railroading of unpopular legislation.
Monday’s questioning was over allegations that Abe intervened to help a friend, Kotaro Kake, gain approval to open a veterinary school in western Japan.
During the session in the lower house of parliament, Abe said he only sought reforms for the sector and did not directly get involved in the decision on Kake’s application.
“I only instructed to speed up efforts for the deregulation reforms. I have never issued instructions on specific cases,” Abe said.
The school scandal erupted after a whistleblower and former top education ministry bureaucrat, Kihei Maekawa, came forward to say that Abe’s office had had significant influence over the school’s approval. Scores of ministry documents showed the alleged instruction to approve Kake’s application came from the “top levels” of the Prime Minister’s Office, Maekawa said.
Given the lack of significant center-left alternatives or strong rivals within his party, Abe’s tenure as prime minister is not under immediate threat.
Abe, in his second stint as prime minister, is getting the message that he might have to tread a bit more softly in pushing for some of his top political priorities, such as revising Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.
The Liberal Democrats suffered a symbolically damaging loss in Tokyo city assembly elections in early July. On Sunday, their candidate lost a closely watched mayoral election in Sendai, in northern Japan.
During the questioning Monday, Abe acknowledged that Kake, director of a major education organization, was a friend even before he became a lawmaker in 1993. But he said Kake has not tried to tap Abe’s position or influence to obtain preferential treatment and did not discuss with him his plans to open a new veterinary school in Imabari, in western Japan.
Kake’s desire to open such a school was not secret: The application had been repeatedly denied by past administrations for years.
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi
Find her work also on APNews at https://www.apnews.com/search/mari%20yamaguchi