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Gov't, ruling camp scramble for damage control in wake of labor statistics scandal

This file photo shows the prime minister's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kimitaka Takeichi)

TOKYO -- Officials within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration and the ruling bloc are becoming increasingly worried about the negative fallout from a scandal on labor statistics ahead of elections this year.

The scandal involves 56.7 billion yen in unpaid work-related benefits affecting nearly 20 million people, stemming from irregular survey methods. It is certain to be a major issue of discussion during the next ordinary session of the Diet to be convened on Jan. 28.

The administration and the ruling camp formed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito are scrambling to control damage from the scandal.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a Jan. 11 press conference that he would like to apologize for the problem, which is "eroding trust in statistics." Suga instructed a meeting of top ministry bureaucrats to check all fundamental government statistics, saying, "The government as a whole must do soul searching."

LDP Diet affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama told reporters that he plans to have Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare officials report on the scandal at a meeting of directors of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare. Moriyama also indicated a willingness to convene a committee meeting while the Diet is out of session. "We will explain (the problem) to the public, clarify our responses and get ourselves on our feet," he said.

The administration and the ruling bloc are bent on containing the scandal because they fear a replay of a 2007 scandal involving missing pension records that heralded the demise of the first Abe administration. The pension scandal triggered harsh criticism against the government from the opposition in the Diet, and the LDP suffered a historic loss in the 2007 House of Councillors election, getting only 37 seats in the chamber. The prime minister later resigned.

This year, a number of important elections are scheduled one after another. Before general local elections in April, the Yamanashi gubernatorial race will take place on Jan. 27, and lower house by-elections are planned in April for the Osaka No. 12 district in western Japan and the Okinawa No. 3 district in southern Japan.

A senior LDP official worried about those races criticized the labor ministry, saying, "The health ministry is way too sloppy." Komeito Secretary-General Tetsuo Saito also called for a "thorough probe" into the issue in front of reporters.

The scandal has forced the government to make a rare revision of the national budget draft including the general account expenditure, although such revisions have been made in the past. In 2010 the administration of the now defunct Democratic Party of Japan made two Cabinet decisions to approve a revised budget to cover increases in personnel costs, but did not change the general account expenditure.

Akira Nagatsuma, acting chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), told reporters that the scandal would be "at the front and center" of discussions at the Diet's budget committees, calling the labor statistics issue "unheard of."

The opposition camp is poised to focus on the scandal during deliberations on the fiscal 2019 draft budget during the ordinary session of the Diet. It is also demanding out-of-session meetings of the budget committees of the both houses of the national legislature.

The Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) called labor ministry officials to the Diet building to question them on Jan. 11. Many attending lawmakers complained about the ministry's failure to announce adjustments introduced in January 2018 to correct statistical problems.

Senior administration officials insist that there was "no intentional hiding" of the problem by the ministry, but how the inappropriate survey and processing of labor data began remains unclear. The opposition will try to find out when Cabinet members and senior ministry officials learned of the problem.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki and Wataru Okubo, Political News Department)

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