Photo/IllutrationTadao Yanase, a former aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, responds to questions in the Lower House Budget Committee in July. (Satoru Semba)

An aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with officials of Ehime Prefecture, Imabari city and the Kake Educational Institution in April 2015 to push forward plans to establish a veterinary medicine faculty, sources said.

That meeting took place almost two years before Abe said he first learned that the Kake institution, which is run by one of his close friends, planned to set up such a faculty.

Tadao Yanase, who was one of seven aides to Abe at the time, held the meeting with the officials at the prime minister’s office, the sources said.

When asked in the Upper House Budget Committee on July 25 if he met with Imabari city officials there, Yanase said, “Based on my memory, I have no recollection of such a meeting.”

The meeting was held two months before the Ehime prefectural and Imabari municipal governments submitted a formal proposal to establish a veterinary medicine faculty in a National Strategic Special Zone.

The inclusion of a high-ranking Kake official in the April 2015 meeting indicates the institution was deeply involved in the plan for the strategic special zone.

During Diet questioning, Abe said he knew about plans by Ehime Prefecture and Imabari to open a veterinary medicine faculty, but he insisted he only learned that the Kake institution was interested in such a faculty on Jan. 20, 2017. That was the date on which the institution was formally approved to operate the faculty.

The latest revelation would mean that an aide to the prime minister was likely aware that Kake was closely tied with the prefectural and municipal governments in the new faculty plan almost two years before Abe became aware of the plan.

Past Diet questioning has focused on whether the Cabinet Office and those close to Abe applied any pressure on the education ministry to facilitate approval of the Kake institution’s plan.

Abe now has six aides, all high-ranking government bureaucrats dispatched from five ministries. The aides are not often in the public eye, but they provide advice to the prime minister on political and policy matters, and they coordinate with officials of the ruling coalition and various central government ministries.

The Imabari municipal government has released a document that shows officials visited the prime minister’s office on April 2, 2015, to discuss the possibility of opening a veterinary medicine faculty. However, parts of the document that could indicate who those officials met were blacked out.

Ehime Governor Tokihiro Nakamura told reporters on Aug. 1 that prefectural government officials joined the Imabari officials in the visit to the prime minister’s office, but he did not reveal who they met or what was discussed.

Sources knowledgeable about the meeting said a Kake Educational Institution official accompanied the Ehime and Imabari officials, and that Yanase met with the group.

At that time, Yanase was in charge of National Strategic Special Zones, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement and global environment issues.

It is unclear what was discussed in the April 2015 meeting.

But two months later, Ehime Prefecture and Imabari submitted their proposal. Imabari was selected as a site for a National Strategic Special Zone in January 2016, and the Kake Educational Institution was approved to operate the veterinary medicine faculty in that zone in January 2017.

The institution is still awaiting approval from a government advisory panel that looks into the opening of new universities and faculties.