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As feared, novice ministers stumble fielding questions during Diet deliberations

Yoshitaka Sakurada, minister in charge of Olympic and Paralympic preparations, wipes sweat from his brow during a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting in Tokyo, on Nov. 5, 2018 (above); Satsuki Katayama, minister for regional revitalization, answer a question during the same session. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Two novice members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet blundered badly under opposition grilling at a Nov. 5 House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting, just as their aides and more experienced colleagues feared they would.

Yoshitaka Sakurada, minister in charge of Olympic and Paralympic preparations, fumbled numerous questions and required frequent support from his bureaucratic aides during extraordinary Diet session deliberations.

When asked by Renho of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) about the lack of reference to the Olympics in his policy vision on his website, and why he deserves his new assignment, Sakurada said, "I don't know why I was chosen, but I will work hard to fulfill my duty properly."

Sakurada could also not properly remember the vision set for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The right answer was, "Sports has the power to change the world and our future," but Sakurada kept repeating, "Sports has the power to think about the world and our future."

Sakurada, sweating profusely from apparent nervousness, furthermore had trouble answering how much the event will cost the government. He first answered that it is "1,500 yen," and then change the figure to "150 billion yen," then to "172.5 billion yen." Every time he got stuck he had to reconfirm the facts with his aides, stalling deliberations. An irritated Renho lectured him to "better understand the budget."

Officials at the Cabinet Office in charge of the Olympics and Paralympics say that supporting Sakurada has felt like walking on eggshells. Sakurada did try to steer clear of trouble by reading prepared remarks at press conferences and speeches at events, but he still misspoke often. He even read out a prepared answer to an unrelated question during a press conference.

"It looks like he has trouble understanding the prepared content properly," said a senior official at the Cabinet Office. "I don't think he can survive the extraordinary Diet session if he continues in this state." The official's worries proved warranted on Day 1 of Sakurada's inaugural Diet appearance in his new portfolio.

Sakurada has been known for his gaffes. In 2016, he described former "comfort women," who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II, as "professional prostitutes doing business." He later retracted the remark.

When he was the state minister for education in 2013, Sakurada triggered criticism after he said that waste from the triple core meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station "should be kept in Fukushima."

A mid-ranking lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who was listening to Sakurada's Nov. 5 Diet remarks commented, "He is saying what he doesn't have to say. He cannot evade questions properly."

Sakurada was not the only minister who had a hard time during the session. Satsuki Katayama, minister in charge of regional revitalization, was the target of relentless fire from the opposition camp over an influence peddling allegation as well as her past gaffes.

Katayama reportedly contacted a senior National Tax Agency official after a company asked her office to intervene in a tax-related problem and paid 100 million yen to her personal secretary. Katayama has denied the allegation vehemently, and sued the publisher of the Shukan Bunshun weekly magazine that first reported it for defamation.

During the upper house deliberations, the CDP's Hideya Sugio pointed out that the reported personal secretary featured in the weekly piece was given a House of Councillors pass by Katayama's office from October 2011 through May 2015, and that the pass application said the individual had been "hired by the lawmaker's office."

The minister repeated her earlier explanation that she had never signed a contract with the person to employ them as a personal secretary, nor paid them a salary.

But Sugio continued to press Katayama over signing and sealing the pass application herself. When the minister replied that "many (lawmakers') offices have cases of secretaries applying those seals," the remark drew a surge of criticism from lawmakers because it effectively suggested that sloppy pass applications were common practice. Katayama was forced to retract the statement after a prompt from the Budget Committee chair.

Katayama was also hit hard over her past remarks. Sugio attacked the minister for her comment in July 2017 during a TV Asahi program that the western Japan island of Shikoku "has no one wanting to become a veterinarian because the place is like a remote island." In response, Katayama clarified her remark, saying, "What I meant was that the area has a higher need for preventing infectious diseases because Shikoku is surrounded by the sea."

Sugio then challenged Katayama, a former senior official at the powerful Ministry of Finance, over her "high-handed remarks looking down on others."

The opposition lawmaker continued to question the only female minister in the Abe Cabinet about her statement around 2012 on people receiving public assistance. "Ms. Katayama was leading people who were bashing the public assistance program. Did you really mean it when you said public assistance was for those facing a life-or-death situation?" asked Sugio.

The minister of regional revitalization did not directly answer the question, saying only that the public assistance system is "not under my purview."

Katayama was also accused of "hate speech" by Democratic Party for the People legislator Eri Tokunaga for her tweets critical of people on welfare. "They are exactly hate speech. Why did you post tweets that made people feel bad?" she said.

Katayama replied, "It was pointed out to me that my tweets came under a barrage of criticism, and I am ashamed over my lack of wisdom," adding, "I would like to apologize to people for any discomfort my tweets caused."

(By Tetsuya Kageyama, Political News Department, and Miaki Tsuburaya, Sports News Department)

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