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Editorial: Abe administration should probe, punish officials responsible for labor stats fiasco

A special Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare investigative panel launched a full-scale probe on Jan. 17 of the ministry's faulty data collection methods for the Monthly Labor Survey; methods that resulted in work-related benefit payment shortfalls impacting tens of millions of people and totaling tens of billions of yen.

What was the purpose of the illicit methods, which run counter to the provisions of the Statistics Act? Why did the dubious practice continue for so long? Was it organization-wide? Many questions await answers.

The situation is only getting more serious.

Ministry rules required the survey to cover all employers with 500 or more workers, but the ministry switched to a sampling method for Tokyo in 2004. A ministry manual made in 2003 included a passage approving the practice, but this was apparently deleted in 2015.

Meanwhile, a document the labor ministry submitted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2016 stated that the survey covered all relevant employers. In a nutshell, the ministry continued to hide the wrongdoing and make false reports on what it was up to. Moreover, the ministry began to make statistical adjustments in January 2018 to edge the sampling survey results closer to those of a blanket poll, but the change was never announced. The ministry has grave responsibility for this failure.

It is not yet clear why this shift to sampling was made. Labor minister Takumi Nemoto received a report on the problem in December last year, but announced the labor statistics the next day without mentioning the wrongdoing. It is an appalling state of affairs.

Past labor ministers, including those during the Democratic Party of Japan-led administrations, all say they never knew about the problem. However, the public's mistrust of the government is rooted in bureaucrats doctoring of data as they please -- as indicated in the case of erroneous data on the discretionary working system and the padding of disabled worker numbers at central government offices -- and politicians' failure to prevent such actions.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been forced into the rare move of revising the draft budget for the new fiscal year and approving it a second time. In addition, it is likely yet more people will be found who did not receive their full work-related benefit amounts due to the questionable data collection. Costs for computer system updates and tasking people to calculate corrections will mount. The fallout is spreading wide.

Prime Minister Abe must be recalling what happened in 2007, when he headed his first administration. At the beginning of that year, the labor ministry was grappling with missing pension records. The government's slow response and resultant public criticism led the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to a crushing defeat in the House of Councillors election that summer.

Lessons learned from this should prompt the government to make its own effort to reveal the structural defects behind these repeated problems. It should not leave the investigation of the causes and punishment of those responsible to the labor ministry.

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