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Nearly 70% of ministry officials in labor stats probe were questioned only by insiders

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 on Jan. 29 corrected the number of ministry officials questioned by external experts in a probe into a labor statistics scandal from 20 to 12 -- acknowledging that the original figure provided by the ministry was incorrect.

It is now evident that 25 of 37 ministry officials interviewed in the probe -- nearly 70 percent -- were questioned only by ministry insiders. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the investigation, which is being conducted by a third-party panel set up to probe improper collection of labor survey statistics. The improper collection methods resulted in data corruption that caused tens of millions of work-related benefit recipients to be underpaid by tens of billions of yen in total.

At out-of-session meetings of the health, labor and welfare committees of both houses of the Diet on Jan. 24, the ministry had stated that 20 employees at the level of bureau and division chiefs had been interviewed by the third-party investigative panel.

Nemoto said that the correction of this figure to 12 was the result of a "detailed check." He added, "This is extremely regrettable. I would like to provide a thorough explanation in the Diet and elsewhere."

It has emerged that Deputy Vice Minister Yumiko Jozuka, the No. 3 bureaucrat at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, was present for hearings with five senior officials subject to the panel's probe. Nemoto revealed that in one of the interviews, no external panel members were present, and that the hearing was conducted between Jozuka and the worker alone.

Assistant Vice-Minister Akira Miyakawa, the ministry's No. 2 administrative worker, also took part in questioning by the panel alongside Jozuka. Nemoto stated that he had taken the pair's direct involvement in the investigation to have "raised doubts about its neutral nature." But he nevertheless maintained, "I think its third-party nature has been secured."

At the out-of-session committee meetings on Jan. 24, critics blasted the investigation as a "self-approved probe by insiders." In light of such criticism, external experts on the panel have conducted a renewed probe, and targeted three more workers, bringing the total number to face hearings to 40.

Meanwhile, it was discovered on Jan. 28 that the ministry's Basic Survey on Wage Structure was improperly carried out with data collection methods deviating from the accepted plan.

"It's extremely regrettable that another thing like this has happened. I want to investigate the facts and respond appropriately," Nemoto said.

Nemoto's admission that just 12 people were interviewed by external experts has sparked a backlash from opposition parties, with intensifying calls for his ouster.

Kazuhiro Haraguchi, the Diet affairs chief of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, stated on Jan. 29, "Why was a figure for as many as eight people off target. There's no option but for a labor minister with such a lack of leadership to resign.

At a meeting of opposition parties at the Diet on Jan. 29, the Japanese Communist Party's Diet affairs chief, Keiji Kokuta, stated, "If statements in out-of-session screenings are going to be corrected, then the screenings have to be redone."

(Japanese original by Shunsuke Kamiashi and Akira Okubo, City News Department; and Shuhei Endo, Political News Department)

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