The two highest-ranking executives of a Tokyo university are suspected of having played a pivotal role in a graft scandal that led to the arrest of a senior education ministry official, sources close to the matter said Thursday.
Tokyo prosecutors believe that Masahiko Usui, chairman of Tokyo Medical University's board of regents, is likely to have asked the 58-year-old ministry official to help the institution get selected for a subsidy program, according to the sources.
(Masahiko Usui, left, and Mamoru Suzuki)
Futoshi Sano, a former director general of the ministry's science policy bureau, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of accepting a bribe from the private university.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office's special investigation squad believes Sano secured the enrollment of his son at the university in return for providing assistance for it to be chosen for the ministry's funding program.
The sources said the chairman and Mamoru Suzuki, president of the university, are suspected of having been involved in the process of padding his son's entrance examination results and paved the way for his admission in February.
The medical university received a grant of 35 million yen ($317,000) after applying to the aid program for fiscal 2017 aimed at helping universities work on eye-catching research activities.
Out of 65 candidates, the university's research plan on early detection of cancers and lifestyle-related diseases was selected in November 2017 for the funding, along with those of 26 other universities.
For the grant program in the previous fiscal year through March 2017, the university was among 69 institutions applying for one of the two research categories, but it was not among the 23 winners. There was almost no change in the contents of its application, the sources said.
Sano was deputy vice minister of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry when he was allegedly asked by the university in May last year to do a favor in the selection of candidates for the funding program.
The position he served in at that time is head of the ministry's secretariat, which is in charge of personnel and budgetary matters.
The subsidy program called "Private university research branding project" started in fiscal 2016. Academic experts select which private university the government will subsidize based on the research outlines, which are divided into two categories depending on the project themes.
(Tokyo Medical University)
Although no money was apparently involved in the case, the prosecutors have judged that the backdoor admission of the official's son constitutes bribery, based on a judicial precedent.
The top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Thursday that the case could "shake the very foundation of public confidence" in the education ministry, if the allegation is true.
The official's arrest came as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is already under pressure over cronyism allegations involving the opening of a new veterinary school headed by his friend and a hugely discounted sale of land to a school operator with ties to his wife.
Usui became Tokyo Medical University's chairman of the board in 2013. When he was president of the institution, he had been slapped with a warning for receiving cash and goods from medical staff who earned doctoral degrees.
In his message posted on the university's website, the chairman said the college is beginning to see "an increased success rate in the national examinations for doctors and nurses, greater allocation of public funds for research," among other issues, and that "all efforts must be made to continue along this path."
Partly due to Japan's declining population, competition among private universities is intensifying and they are at the same time vying for government subsidies.
At the university, classes were conducted as usual even after the arrest of the senior official, but some students appeared to be shocked and others expressed irritation at officials of the school.
"Our university is criticized on the web and has become famous in an unfavorable way. I want those involved to swiftly take responsibility," a medical student in his senior year said.
A female student said, "Someone may have flunked (instead of the bureaucrat's son). I can't believe this."
In connection with the latest case, the prosecutors also arrested Koji Taniguchi, a 47-year-old former executive of a medical consulting firm, for allegedly bringing Sano and university officials together.