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Long and winding road to Abe's decision to forgo discretionary labor bill

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

Moves leading to the government's decision to remove stipulations on the expansion of the so-called discretionary labor system from a work-style reform bill first emerged on the morning of Feb. 27, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a meeting with Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and party Diet affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama at the prime minister's office in Tokyo.

Nikai had led consultations between the ruling and opposition parties the day before, over Diet deliberations on the fiscal 2018 budget draft. During the session, Nikai gave up on passing the budget bill in the House of Representatives on Feb. 27, showing consideration to opposition parties.

For Prime Minister Abe, weathering through this Diet session without a hitch is of utmost priority. Nikai's focus on seeking a "peaceful" Diet session is in line with Abe's strategy in the run-up to the LDP leadership race scheduled for this autumn, in which he aims to secure re-election as party president for a third term.

At the Feb. 27 meeting at the prime minister's office, Nikai told fellow attendees, "Unless the budget bill clears the lower house on Feb. 28, it will cause trouble to the House of Councillors."

At the same time, Moriyama, who is on good terms with Nikai, and others raised the issue of flawed labor survey data from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Abe and other officials had cited this data in responding to Diet questions on work hours under the discretionary labor system, in which employees are paid based on fixed work hours rather than actual hours on the job.

"Would it ever be possible to have the bill peacefully passed through the lower chamber without complying with opposition parties' demands at all?" one of them queried.

The first Abe Cabinet resigned en masse in 2007 after the opposition camp grilled the administration over the disappearance of massive sums of pension funds. If opposition forces were to resist the fiscal 2018 budget bill in an attempt to restage the 2007 drama, the passage of the package through the lower house on Feb. 28 would be in peril. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who was also present at the meeting, echoed Nikai's concerns.

Moriyama and Suga began coordinating the government's response to the issue at the lower house members' dormitory in Tokyo's Akasaka district on the night of Feb. 27, with the assistance of Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura. It was not until the next morning that draft responses to questions that would be raised in the Diet were drawn up. The draft stated, "Unless the actual situation is made clear, the government as a whole cannot move forward." The draft was delivered to Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato shortly before a lower house Budget Committee session started at 9 a.m.

Abe read out the draft during the session as it was, pledging to "grasp the reality of the situation" over the irregular labor survey data issue. Prior to the session, Abe had told health minister Kato and others that he "would not answer the details" of how the government was going to get to the bottom of the situation.

When Abe was questioned by opposition lawmakers during the Feb. 28 lower house budget panel session how the government intended to gain an understanding of the actual circumstances, Abe repeatedly stated, "The method will be considered by the health minister and others." The prime minister did not elaborate further in order to leave room for the government to submit the work reform bill in a package including the expansion of the discretionary labor system, while making a show of "giving consideration" to opposition parties' concerns.

With regard to the flawed data in the health ministry's fiscal 2013 labor survey, Prime Minister Abe announced that the government would "closely examine" all of the 10,000-plus data values. However, he refused to comply with an opposition demand for a renewed survey, apparently because such a step would take a considerable amount of time and make it impossible to pass the labor reform bill through the legislature during the current session. The prime minister's vow to "grasp the reality of the situation" invoked the image that the government was going to redo the survey, but what he meant was no more than a "close examination" of the situation, in line with the government's policy up to that point.

This tactic of leaving the government's policy ambiguous apparently worked, at least temporarily. Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), told reporters, "I took what he said about (the government) grasping the actual situation to mean that it was going to redo a survey." By making opposition parties believe that they had gotten the outcome they wanted, the governing bloc managed to secure the prospect of passing the fiscal 2018 budget bill through the lower chamber later on Feb. 28.

Around noon the same day, however, Prime Minister Abe veered dramatically toward removing stipulations on the discretionary labor system from the work reform bill. His office was quick to respond, sounding out the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito on whether deletion of the discretionary labor system portion would affect the labor bill as a whole. After securing approval from the two parties, Abe firmed up a plan on the evening of Feb. 28 to finalize a decision on the removal at a meeting with Kato and executives from the LDP and Komeito at the prime minister's office later that night.

Abe was initially reluctant to cut out the discretionary labor provisions from the bill, telling his aides, "The opposition parties will gather momentum if we comply with their request to remove the stipulations, which would threaten passage of the bill." However, he ended up agreeing to make concessions, out of growing concern that refusal to fulfill the opposition lawmakers' request could "adversely affect upper house discussions on the budget bill," according to a senior official with the prime minister's office.

After the budget bill cleared the lower chamber, it was put up for debate in the upper house budget committee on March 1. By that time, the total number of irregular data entries relating to the discretionary labor system had topped 400. The labor ministry secretly told the prime minister's office that the number of flawed data values would ultimately reach 1,000. It was just a matter of time before the opposition bloc realized the government's "ambiguous policy" tactic during upper house deliberations, and a slew of additional irregular data entries emerged.

The discovery of the flawed data can be attributed, mainly, to the joint efforts of opposition parties. During a Diet session on Jan. 29, Prime Minister Abe stated, "There is data that shows the work hours of those employed under the discretionary labor system are shorter than those of regular workers."

Hosei University professor Mitsuko Uenishi raised doubts about the data and contacted the opposition bloc. In response, CDP acting leader Akira Nagatsuma and Party of Hope legislator Kazunori Yamanoi requested that the labor ministry submit the actual data. After examining the data, they grilled Abe in the Diet, arguing that the data contained obviously unnatural values. Eventually, Abe was forced to retract his Diet remarks. With the opposition parties poised to take advantage of the momentum sparked by their joint collaboration, it became certain the Abe administration would face further adversity down the road.

Even within the ruling camp, frustrations were smoldering over the prime minister's obsession with the discretionary labor system.

"The issue reminds us of the missing pension scandal, which resulted in pushing down Cabinet approval ratings. The flawed labor survey data could turn into a repeat of that scandal," warned upper house member Shoji Nishida, a close ally of Abe, at a party meeting on Feb. 27, tacitly urging Abe to make a concession.

If upper house deliberations were to stall over the flawed data issue, that could irk ruling party officials including Nikai, who aims to see the governing bloc ride through this Diet session successfully. At the same time, there was frustration within the ruling bloc about the prime minister's office leading the debate on the issue. Therefore, a refusal to make a compromise ran the risk of dealing a serious blow to Abe's goal of securing his third term as LDP president.

In the end, Abe opted to collaborate with the ruling coalition. He told the upper house budget panel on March 1, "Some people criticize me as if I'm the sole decision-maker in everything, but that's not the case. I consulted with the secretaries-general and policy chiefs of the ruling parties."

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