Japan PM Shinzo Abe's ex-aide says met school operator at centre of scandal

Tadao Yanase, former secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, answers questions during a parliament session in Tokyo on May 10, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - A former aide to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave highly anticipated testimony on Thursday (May 10) to a parliamentary investigation into a cronyism scandal that is undermining Abe's support, but he did not make any startling revelations.

The scandal, one of several that have raised questions about how long Abe can hold onto office, centres on allegations the prime minister helped a friend get permission to open a veterinary school in a special economic zone.

On Thursday, former Abe aide Tadao Yanase told parliament that he had indeed had dealings with the school operator, the director of which is Abe's friend, but said neither he nor Abe had intervened to help win approval for the school.

Nihon University professor Tomoaki Iwai said Yanase's testimony was neither a body-blow for Abe, nor would if dispel voters' suspicions about his behaviour.

"This is a testimony well within the realm of expectations ... I don't think voters' distrust has been wiped out. It is unlikely his support will bounce right up," Iwai said. "It's going to trend sideways, or dip slightly."

Yanase acknowledged for the first time that he had met officials from the educational institution called Kake Gakuen three times in the first half of 2015.

The institution's director, Kotaro Kake, is an old friend of Abe's.

Abe has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the affair.

Yanase, now a senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, repeated an earlier assertion that he had not given Kake Gakuen any preferential treatment, and that Abe had never told him to do so.

Abe is hoping to win a third term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party leader in a September vote. He needs the party top job to stay on as prime minister.

Victory in the party poll would set Abe, who took office in 2012 pledging to reboot the economy and bolster defence, on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier.

But opposition lawmakers have called for him to resign.

The Asahi newspaper reported last month that Yanase had told authorities in 2015 that the plan for the veterinary school in a government-designated deregulation zone was a "prime ministerial matter" and they should work hard to realise it.

Yanase denied using that term.

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