TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday (July 24) denied all wrongdoing as he was forced onto the defensive in a parliamentary hearing over an unrelenting cronyism scandal that has threatened his grip on power.
Mr Abe only acceded to the off-season Diet session two weeks ago, as growing public distrust contributed to his Cabinet approval ratings sinking to new lows and his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) poor showing in Tokyo polls this month.
Opposition lawmakers came brandishing charts, timelines and photographs for the lower house session that, at moments, was interrupted by jeers and accusations that Mr Abe was lying to cover up his tracks.
The prime minister faces more questioning on Tuesday in the upper house of parliament.
Mr Abe has been implicated by allegations that he had pulled strings to help the educational institution Kake Gakuen, which is run by his close friend Kotaro Kake, win a bid to set up a veterinary school.
Documents leaked to the media in the past two months had implied there was implicit pressure from the top echelons of government to grant Kake Gakuen the permit in an alleged rubber-stamp deal.
Mr Abe on Monday reiterated that due process was given to the bid put in by Kake Gakuen, even as former top education ministry bureaucrat Kihei Maekawa said there was "behind-the-scenes manoeuvring".
The prime minister kicked off the session by acknowledging his ties with Mr Kake could have led to public misperceptions that favours had been granted. He said Mr Kake has been "a friend since my student days, and from way before I became a politician".
Their friendship came under intense scrutiny yesterday, with opposition lawmakers rolling out photographs of the duo playing golf and having meals together.
"Mr Kake is my friend, but he has never tried to leverage on my status or position in his accomplishments," he said. "I would like to very clearly and firmly state there is absolutely no way that (Mr Kake) asked for the government's approval for the establishment of the school."
Mr Abe added that he only found out Kake Gakuen was awarded the contract in January this year, stressing that he had never discussed the opening of a new veterinary school during his meetings with Mr Kake.
That comment incited disbelieving taunts from opposition lawmakers, who noted the existence of documents from last year that suggest Mr Abe had a hand in swaying bureaucratic opinion.
Mr Maekawa on Monday clashed with Mr Abe's special advisor Hiroto Izumi. Mr Maekawa said, referring to Kake Gakuen: "On Sept 9 last year, I remember (Mr Izumi) ordering our ministry to allow a swift opening of a school in the government's special deregulated zone. He said that the prime minister cannot openly say that himself, so he said he was telling us instead."
Mr Izumi flatly denied the accusation, saying that he would have remembered if he had "said anything extreme".
New veterinary schools have been barred from opening in Japan for more than 50 years, due to a glut of animal doctors in the country. The school by Kake Gakuen was being planned for Ehime prefecture south of Hiroshima, where rules have been relaxed as part of a national deregulated zone.
Mr Abe on Monday also resisted opposition calls to dismiss his defence chief Tomomi Inada, who denied her purported role in assenting to the cover-up of mission logs of Japanese troops in South Sudan.
But the gaffe-prone minister is still widely expected to be replaced in an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle next month.