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Opposition poised to grill gov't in upcoming Diet session over various thorny issues

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto is seen at a news conference on inappropriate methods of data collection for job statistics at the ministry on Jan. 11, 2019. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- The opposition camp is poised to attack the government in the upcoming regular Diet session set to convene on Jan. 28 over a number of sticky issues, including inappropriate methods of data collection for job statistics.

The governing bloc is on the defensive, trying to tide over the regular session as nationwide local elections and a House of Councillors poll will be held in spring and summer 2019, respectively.

The ruling coalition will have no choice but to comply with an opposition request to hold an out-of-session meeting ahead of the regular session in a desperate bid to close the book on the labor statistics issue at an early date. On the other hand, opposition parties are demanding that the government bring forward the convening of the regular session in an attempt to secure more time to grill the government.

At a liaison meeting between the governing bloc and the executive branch of the government on Jan. 15, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed regret over the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's employment of inappropriate data collection methods. "It's indeed regrettable that the situation has led to a loss of the public's trust in statistics," he said.

Hiroshi Moriyama, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Diet Affairs Committee, met with Kiyomi Tsujimoto, his counterpart at the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), to discuss how to respond to the issue. They have agreed to receive an explanation from the ministry over the matter at a board meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare on Jan. 17.

Moriyama also told Tsujimoto that the ruling bloc will consider opening an out-of-session meeting of the lower house panel.

The use of inappropriate data collection methods dating back to 2004 led to the underpayment of an estimated 56.75 billion yen in unemployment and other benefits for about 20 million people.

The ruling coalition, which is increasingly nervous about public criticism, is leaning toward convening an out-of-session meeting to grill those responsible for the matter at the ministry.

However, some legislators within the governing bloc are worried that "an out-of-session meeting could dig a hole for us unless sufficient preparations are made," as a senior LDP lawmaker points out.

The opposition camp is going on the offensive and is targeting not only bureaucrats at the ministry responsible for labor statistics but also Cabinet ministers in charge. "Bureaucrats aren't solely to blame. How politicians should take responsibility will depend on the development of the matter," said Katsuya Okada, leader of the Group of Independents opposition parliamentary bloc.

LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Koichi Hagiuda is trying to fend off the opposition camp's criticism, saying, "Both the ruling and opposition blocs share the feeling that the incident is outrageous."

Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, has suggested that the opposition camp could dig a hole for itself because the ministry employed such inappropriate data collection methods while the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan was also in power.

Meanwhile, the CDP and other opposition parties are criticizing the government's basic policy for accepting more foreign workers under the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act to make up for a serious labor shortage as "vague."

Attention is focused on whether the executive branch can provide a sufficient explanation to convince the public before the amended legislation comes into force in April.

Opposition parties also pointed to uncertainty in the prospects of Japan-Russia negotiations on the Northern Territories that are claimed by Tokyo but ruled by Moscow.

"The public doesn't understand what they are trying to decide on," said the CDP's Tsujimoto.

Moreover, many in the opposition camp have raised questions about the accuracy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's explanation that coral reefs have been removed from a site for landfill work for the construction of a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture and replanted.

Under such circumstances, a tug-of-war between the ruling and opposition blocs is intensifying as the regular Diet session draws near.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Matsukura and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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