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Labor minister says will conduct additional probe on corrupt stats scandal

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto is seen at the prime minister's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Jan. 25, 2019. (Mainichi/ Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Labor minister Takumi Nemoto told a Jan. 25 press conference after a Cabinet meeting here that his ministry's special inspection commission will conduct an additional probe into the corrupt labor statistics scandal.

Nemoto announced the plan as both ruling and opposition lawmakers are raising questions about the reliability of an earlier probe into the stats problem, which caused tens of billions of yen in work-related benefits payment shortfalls affecting tens of millions of people. The investigative panel concluded on Jan. 22 that it found "no organizational cover-up" of the problem.

However, out-of-session Diet hearings over the issue on Jan. 24 found that the panel used results of interviews with ministry officials linked to the scandal conducted by other ministry bureaucrats, raising conflict of interest concerns. Now the panel is effectively redoing the investigation only three days after it announced its conclusion.

In the scandal, an estimated 56.75 billion yen in unemployment, industrial accident and mariners insurance benefits remain unpaid to at least 21.5 million people due to improper data collection by the ministry for the Monthly Labor Survey. In the survey on wages and working hours, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare broke its rule of covering all employers with 500 workers or more in Tokyo and polled only one-third of the some 1,400 companies of that scale for 15 years starting in 2004. The ministry also remained mum on its introduction in January 2018 of statistical adjustments to the data designed to make them closer to the proper figures.

In the Jan. 25 press conference, Nemoto said that he will ask the panel to "conduct further hearings (with relevant people) in a way that will not raise any questions." The minister nevertheless stated that it was "appropriate" for the special inspectors to compile their report in just one week and publish it on Jan. 22, despite criticism that it was a "quick, sloppy job."

In the additional investigation, panel members are expected to redo interviews of relevant officials conducted by ministry bureaucrats, and talk to prefectural officials who do the actual work of collecting the labor data in question.

According to the panel's report, a total of 69 officials were interviewed in the probe. However, ministry officials told meetings of the health, labor and welfare committees of the both chambers of the Diet on Jan. 24 that the actual number of interviewees was 37. Of this number, 17 were interviewed by other ministry officials. The remaining 20 bureaucrats, who are division and bureau heads, were said to be questioned by the inspectors, but the labor ministry is double-checking on this point too.

(Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi and Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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